Guest editorial: Why we plunge in icy water for Special Olypics

On February 3, I will run through snow and ice with over 1,200 Vermonters to jump into Lake Champlain for the annual Penguin Plunge. This will be my first time taking the Plunge, which is the largest annual fundraiser for Special Olympics Vermont — a statewide organization that is part of a global movement dedicated to transforming the lives of people with intellectual disabilities. I will have to summon all my courage to plunge into the icy water. But I will be warmed knowing that my action will positively impact so many Vermont families.
Having spent much of my youth dreaming of figure skating in the Olympics, and then competing in and coaching a variety of team sports, I know the power of sports and teamwork. This is why I am so inspired to be leading Special Olympics Vermont, helping to make Olympic dreams come true for many who have historically been marginalized and segregated.
I grew up in a generation where people with disabilities were invisible to me, often institutionalized and mistreated. Thankfully, this is changing, due to many champions and advocates for people with disabilities. One of these champions for change was Eunice Kennedy Shriver, the sister of a U.S. President and of Rosemary, who was born with an intellectual disability. Mrs. Shriver used sports to help bring Rosemary, and thousands of people like her, out of the shadows by launching the first Special Olympics Games in Chicago in 1968.
Over the past fifty years Special Olympics has progressed into a global movement to build a more inclusive culture for people of all abilities through sport. Five million athletes with intellectual disabilities in 170 countries around the world train and compete year-round, building physical fitness, confidence, and friendships. Here in Vermont, 1,300 athletes and 450 Unified partners (individuals without disabilities who play Special Olympics sports) are training in 22 community-based and 72 school-based programs at no cost to their families.
There is great anticipation as athletes around the world prepare for the upcoming Winter Olympic Games in South Korea. These games not only inspire athletes to new heights of achievement, they bring the world together on the same stage, demonstrating what is possible when we focus on common goals through competition. Through the history of the Olympics we see that sports can expand our horizons of what is possible, help build community, and help pave the way for greater understanding and peace.
Special Olympics harnesses that same spirit to break down barriers that separate us and forge a different path for our global future.
And this is why we plunge. We plunge because we believe that sports have the power to change the world. We plunge to grow an inclusive generation where classrooms and sports programs seamlessly blend and value students of all abilities. We plunge for the courageous athletes and generous volunteers and supporters who help make dreams come true.  We plunge because, as Nelson Mandela has said: “Sport can create hope, where once there was only despair.”
On February 3, I will be warmed by his inspiring and powerful message when I join thousands of other Special Olympic supporters and plunge into Lake Champlain. I hope you will follow us in!
Sue Minter is President and CEO of Special Olympics Vermont. She formerly served Vermont as a Legislator, the Secretary of Transportation, the Irene Recovery Officer and as Democratic Candidate for Governor. You can register to support the Penguin Plunge, or volunteer at PenguinPlunge.org.

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