Blending sport with culture and education, the Olympic Games celebrate the boundless joy found in effort and universal respect. As I watched the Winter Olympic Games over the last few weeks, and witnessed hundreds of Team USA athletes supporting each other in the pursuit of their full potential, I found myself reflecting on what their achievements mean to us back home. Here in Florida, the achievements of these athletes inspire thousands more who dream to represent their communities as they compete at the highest levels. For these athletes, individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities, the Olympic Games represent the spirit of inclusion, which drives them on the Road to Gold.
Florida is home to more than 44,000 Special Olympics athletes, 200 of whom will soon travel to Seattle to represent our state in the Special Olympics USA Games. Many compete in multiple sports, from basketball to soccer to bowling, gymnastics and more. These athletes are champions, like those who compete at the Winter Olympic Games, and have not only overcome significant challenges to make great strides in their physical abilities, but also to become champions for their communities.
Every year, athletes from across Florida join forces with their neighbors to raise funds for initiatives that celebrate inclusion, making it possible for all to experience the inclusion and satisfaction that come from physical activities. Along with support from Procter & Gamble, local law enforcement and first responders, professional athletes and sports organizations, our athletes spent several weeks sharing their stories with customers in more than 780 Florida Publix stores, continuing a 45-year tradition that started when Publix Founder George Jenkins wrote a check to send our athletes to their first national games.
If Mr. Jenkins could see the people in this group now, he would see athletes and communities whose values are truly aligned with the spirit of Olympic values. He would see inclusive communities where those with intellectual and developmental disabilities are offered the same chances to inspire others as the Olympic athletes who inspire us now are offered. He would see athletes who give their all on the field, in their education and work, and in their communities as ambassadors for all. And he would see those in these communities who take the time, just a few minutes in their visit to the grocery store, to make a small contribution that is part of a much larger Olympic movement to build a peaceful and better world.
On behalf of all the Special Olympics Florida athletes, their families, coaches and the volunteers and staff who support them, we wish to thank you for being a symbol of friendship and unity. Thank you for lighting the torch for Special Olympics Florida.
Wheelock is president & CEO of Special Olympics Florida.