Day 17 – The Greatest Teachers

Well, my plan today is to bike from Eureka to the Burlington Campground in the Avenue of the Giants. Maps indicate that this will be a 50 mile ride with some hills. An early-morning start should give me more than enough time to get there before sunset.

As I leave the Motel 6 where I spent the night, I begin to look for a place down the road for breakfast… this old body of mine needs some fuel. Fifteen minutes later I spot a McD, not usually my choice for any meal, but I don’t have the luxury of being picky. Today, time takes priority over healthy nutrition. Fast food, here I go!

I park my bike against the glass window, and while I am removing my helmet and gloves, I see these two guys — who I guess are in their early thirties — inside. They look at me, my outfit, my bike, the load I am carrying, and I imagine that they may be thinking, “Here’s another guy biking down the coast.” They smile and nod their heads in approval, and I, too, smile and nod back at them.

I get my breakfast tray and choose to sit close to them. We exchange smiles and I start a conversation. “Hi guys. How are you this morning? Do you guys bike?” They smile back at me, but don’t say anything.

“Well, that’s strange,” I think to myself.

“Where are you heading to this morning?” I make a second attempt. One of them looks at me, and raises his finger. I interpret his sign as if he is saying, “Wait a second. Just give me some time and I’ll answer you.” He then looks up, as if he is searching for words up in the ceiling, and tells me, slowly and with difficulty, “We are heading to a swimming competition.” He is clearly making a huge effort to communicate… “We compete in the Special Olympics,” he continues.

“Now I get it!” I say to myself.

Through broken words and phrases they tell me that they are waiting for a van that will be picking them up to take them to where the meet will take place. We talk some more. They tell me that they bike as well, and I tell them a little bit about my biking adventure. I am not in a hurry anymore. One of them shows me his calves and pointing at them says, “See? I am a biker too.”

We exchange goodbyes. I wish them good luck in the competition, and they continue to smile as I leave… pure smiles that stay with me.

I pedal just enough to get out of their sight and then I start crying. Tears run down my face. I just cry. I can’t control my emotions. I am bawling.

I reflect that eating, speaking, walking… all the most ordinary things, those that come so easy to me, and that I can do without thinking, are so difficult to them.

How grateful I am that I have met them, the greatest teachers. They bring out the best in me: compassion, understanding, generosity, patience and gratitude. They remind me how fortunate I am, how much I have, and my responsibility to not waste, but put to good use the gifts that were given to me.

God puts individuals in our lives and calls us to help them. I believe that when we accept this calling we grow and become better human beings. I don’t believe, as the loud voice in our culture tries to make us believe, that I am here to do only what is best for me, and that if everyone does only what is best for them without concern for others, then everyone will be better off. The experience of the years has given me some knowledge now, and I came to believe that I am here to do what is best for those of us who need the most. I am not proud when I catch myself practicing the ‘it’s each man for himself’ ideology. I am definitely a better man when I choose to be my brother’s and my sister’s keeper.

I stop and think about my friend Karen Bossert to whom we — One Planet United — awarded the first OPU Humanitarian of the Year award. I think about how she dedicated herself to take care of others and the many individuals with disabilities that she introduced to us, and how these encounters have made our lives richer and better.

I think about Anne McGlone Burke, Eunice Kennedy Shriver, and all the other many men and women who, through the Special Olympics, created opportunities not only for children and adults with intellectual disabilities, but also for those who care for them, to become better human beings.

I think about my intellectual and physical health, and my journey on this bike, and this fantastic opportunity I am blessed with to learn more about life and myself. How grateful I am! Thank you, my teachers! Life is good… and became better after meeting you.

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NINE GOLD MEDALS © 1988 David Roth

The athletes had come from all over the country
To run for the gold, for the silver and bronze
Many the weeks and the months of their training
And all coming down to these games

The spectators gathered around the old field
For cheering on all the young women and men
The final event of the day was approaching
Excitement grew high to begin

The blocks were all lined up for those who would use them
The hundred yard dash was the race to be run
There were nine resolved athletes in back of the starting line
Poised for the sound of the gun

The signal was given, the pistol exploded
And so did the runners all charging ahead
But the smallest among them, he stumbled and staggered
And fell to the asphalt instead

He gave out a cry in frustration and anguish
His dreams and his efforts all dashed in the dirt
But as sure as I’m standing here telling this story
The same goes for what next occurred

The eight other runners pulled up on their heels
The ones who had trained for so long to compete
One by one they all turned around and went back to help him
And brought the young boy to his feet

Then all the nine runners joined hands and continued
The hundred yard dash now reduced to a walk
And a banner above that said “Special Olympics”
Could not have been more on the mark

For that’s how the race ended, with nine gold medals
They came to the finish line holding hands still
And a standing ovation and nine beaming faces
Said more than these words ever will

That’s how the race ended, with nine gold medals
They came to the finish line holding hands still
And a banner above that said “Special Olympics”
Said more than these words ever will

So much more than these words ever will

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