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Special Olympics Health Messengers are athletes who are trained to serve as health and wellness leaders, educators, advocates and role models within their Special Olympics communities, as well as the community at large.

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Since the program launched in 2016, nearly 4,000 athletes have been trained to be health leaders and advocates. One of Special Olympics’ newest Health Messengers is Region I athlete, Rachel Zakutansky, who received her official certificate this past July in Washington D.C.

Rachel has been an athlete with Special Olympics since she was 14 years old, starting in Connecticut. She first became involved through her mother’s encouragement to take part in something besides school. “After my first competition, I just kept at it and got to learn different sports,” Rachel said.

Now, Rachel is a multi-sport athlete, competing in events like athletics, bocce, and Unified volleyball and basketball. Her agency, the Effingham County Lightning, hopes to form a softball team in 2024, which Rachel is especially excited for. “I like all the sports because I get to practice and compete with my teammates,” she said.

In addition to her interest in sports, Rachel also has a passion for health and wellness, which sparked her decision to complete the Health Messenger training this year in Washington D.C.

“I first started as a Global Messenger,” Rachel said. “I love giving speeches in front of people. My focus turned to health and teaching fellow athletes about healthy habits. People with intellectual disabilities can sometimes have more problems staying healthy, so getting some training in this area was important to me.”

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During her Health Messenger training in Washington D.C., she received training on proper ways to complete exercise circuits, creating her own exercise circuits, learning about healthy diet and hydration, and getting to know other athletes in the program.

Rachel first demonstrated her Health Messenger skills in October at the Special Olympics Illinois Fall Games, where she led fellow athletes in a series of physical activities.

An initiative Rachel hopes to bring more awareness to as Health Messenger is Special Olympics’ Fit 5 program, which advises individuals to exercise five days per week, drink five glasses of water per day, and eat five fruits and vegetables per day.

“Through Special Olympics, I have learned how to win,” Rachel says, “It takes practice and you can never quit or give up. If you keep trying you will win.”

Beyond all else, Rachel wants everyone to know that when it comes to health, perseverance is key. “You can do this, and you are worth it,” she said. To learn more about Special Olympics’ Health Messenger program, click here.

In order to create more effective public health programs, improve health systems and engage communities to support the health of people with intellectual disabilities, people with intellectual disabilities must have leadership roles in the health system. This can only continue to happen through the generous support of people like you.

Help more athletes like Rachel become advocates of inclusion by clicking here.