"Max, are you going to go fast or slow?" I asked as we drove to Max's first Special Olympics event, Track and Field. That may sound like a strange question, but Max had mentioned to me that he was scared of falling. I was curious to see where his confidence was that morning.
"Fast!" he responded.
Max is relatively steady on his feet, although his left foot has been turning in a bit at times in the last year. I was a little worried about him, too, and so I'd bought gel knee pads that he wore beneath his sweatpants. It was rainy and dreary outside, but the mood in our minivan was sunny.
We got to the high school late where the event was being held and made a fast trek across a gigantic wet field (warmup!). Max joined the parade with a few kids from his school. There were dozens of athletes in attendance in a range of ages, including a few men who looked well into their sixties. Spectators sat in the stands, cheering them on.
The first couple of races were pretty long; a staffer explained that they put those first to give athletes competing in multiple events time to rest up. In the meantime, Max got antsy. Then he got teary and said he wanted to go home. I was all, "We just drove an hour to get here!" Then he hit my arm. Then he roared.
I knew he just needed to push past the freakout.
The answer lay a few steps away: snack stand. I wanted a soft pretzel, as I hadn't eaten breakfast. Max got a donut. Then he downed the banana I'd brought (its potassium has cramp-busting powers). And suddenly, the dark cloud over his head lifted and he was raring to go. In fact, I had to stop him from joining a couple of other races.
He was in race number eight. Finally, it arrived, and Max couldn't get to the start line fast enough. He took his place next to three other kids, and listened as he was told he needed to run in his lane. And then, they were off.
Max booked, with this huge grin on his face.
I choked up as I cheered/screeched him on. This was the boy we were told might never walk.
I had the biggest grin on my face and tears in my eyes as we hugged.
"I WON!!!" said Max, gleefully.
Before I had Max, I never knew that the Special Olympics is a true competition. But of course, it is. Disability or not, participants want to win. And they are true athletes; I was impressed by the endurance and speed of various people. The message on the medal lanyard reads, "Let me win. But if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt."
The day was a win for other reasons. For years, I'd been asking Max if he wanted to participate in his school's delegation at the Special Olympics. This was the first year he'd said "Yes."
As Max's group lined up to go to the podium and receive his medal, a staffer called his name.
"No!" said Max.
"Would you mind asking the announcer if she could call him Fireman Max?" I asked. "I will," she said, smiling.
Max stood in line, eagerly awaiting his turn.
"I won!" he said to one of the boys who'd been in the race with him.
And then: "You're bad!"
I felt mortified but mercifully, since Max didn't articulate the words very clearly, the boy didn't get what he was saying.
I said, "Yes, everyone did their best!"
Clearly, there are sportsmanship lessons to be learned; we had a long discussion about that in the car ride home.
Then they called Max's group. A police offer helped Max up to the middle podium. Max motioned me to me to come over and hold his hand—he was a little scared about standing high up. "You're OK!" I shouted to him.
The announcer called the fourth winner, the third, the second. And then: "Fireman Max wins first place!" The police officer returned to put the gold medal on Max's neck.
He waved at the crowd. I cried.
Afterward, as we walked around, people said "Congratulations!" and other athletes gave him high-fives. There was such a warmth to the event.
Max wasn't up for waiting around till race number 40, so we left after watching several more races. Oh, but he wasn't done.
"Next week!" he said.