Standing in the middle of the gymnasium, I faced the Special Olympics athletes, wall-to-wall bleachers filled with energy and excitement. The incessant chatter and constant movement was interrupted only occasionally when an athlete would break loose and dash across the room. Their enthusiasm could not be stifled – this was their special day.
I was an inexperienced high-school junior. When I signed up to volunteer as a team leader, I had no idea what it would entail. Standing there completely baffled, I surveyed the chaos, wondering how the Games could ever be organized.
As I waited anxiously for my team of girls to be called, a small mob of schoolgirls, wearing matching Special Olympics T-shirts, closed in on me. Each girl had a distinctive gait. Some moved as if they were going to attack me, while others had difficulty putting one foot in front of the other.
One young woman bounced clumsily toward me with such liveliness, gravity seemed to have no effect. Strands of brown hair swayed back and forth in front of her blue eyes with every step, and a huge smile warmed her full, freckled face.
I felt paralyzed as I realized she was headed directly toward me. She stood next to me, placed her arm on my shoulder, and said, “Hi, I’m Jane.”
“Hi, I’m Sandy.”
Then, moving even closer, she said, “Hi, Sandy. I’m Jane.”
Smiling, I asked, “How are you, Jane?”
“Fine,” she said, her gaze focused on my face.
Just then the whistle announced the first event – a basketball – dribbling relay. The girls lined up behind the starting line, ready to dribble the ball to the cone at the other end of the court, and back again.
At the sound of the bell, my first team member picked up the ball and put as much energy as she could into her task. Bounce . . . Catch . . . Step. Bounce . . . Catch . . . Step.
“Come on! You can do it!” I yelled. Bounce . . . Catch . . . Step . . . Smile. Crossing the finish line, she passed the ball to the next girl, who took off. “Go! Go!” I screamed.
Handling the basketball with confidence as she zigzagged down the court and back, she passed the ball to Jane.
“Watch, Sandy. I can do this.” As Jane attempted to dribble, her bouncing gait kept her from controlling the ball. With almost every step, Jane’s foot would kick the ball, sending it flying across the gymnasium.
“You can do it, Jane!” I yelled.
Her smile never faded as she happily retrieved the ball and resumed where she had left off. As if the ball had a mind of its own, it took two more trips across the gymnasium before Jane was back at my side.
“I did good, didn’t I, Sandy?” Jane asked proudly. “Yes, you did fine.”
Then, as if she needed reminding or felt I did, Jane once again placed her arm on my shoulder and declared, “Hi Sandy, I’m Jane.”
“Yes, you are Jane, a wonderful young lady.” I responded, with a reassuring smile. This game continued throughout the other events.
I admired Jane’s zeal and her extraordinary attitude. She faced each challenge optimistically. Nothing fazed her. Nothing could erase the beautiful smile from her face. Each setback seemed to fuel her exuberant joy.
At the end of the day, each athlete received a ribbon. No one on my team came in first – it wasn’t important. The only thing that mattered was a job well-done and contented hearts. These girls were no different than any Olympian in Barcelona or Sydney; they had given their all, and now they looked at their ribbons with as much pride as a gold medalist.
“See! I did good!” Jane announced as she proudly showed me her ribbons.
It was time to go. Jane stood by my side and propped her arm on my shoulder. “Bye, Sandy. I had fun. I did good, didn’t I?”
“You did your best. I am so proud of you,” I answered, looking into her distant eyes.
Digging a piece of folded paper and small pencil from the pocket of her shorts, Jane handed it to me. “Can I have your address, Sandy?” she asked graciously.
“Sure,” I said, jotting it down.
“I could write you and then you could write me, huh? That would be good.”
“Yes, I would like that.”
All but one of the girls walked out of my life. Jane and I continued to communicate through letters and phone calls. We talked about comic books and baby dolls – trivial things to me, but to her, prized possessions.
A year later, as the Special Olympics approached, Jane wrote, “Can you come watch me in the Special Olympics?”
That year, I went as an observer. I stood next to Jane’s mother during the floor-hockey competition. Occasionally I shouted, “Good, Jane, good!”
“I’m glad you came,” her mother said. “You mean so much to my daughter. She talks about you all the time. When she asked if she could invite you, I said yes, but I also told her I didn’t think you would come.”
Looking at her in disbelief, I thought, Why would you assume such a thing? I replied, “Jane and I have developed a close relationship this year. She is my friend, and I’m happy to come.” Pausing for a moment, I smiled and added, “Besides, I love Jane.”
“I know you do, dear,” her mother said. “It’s just that . . . she’s been disappointed so many times before.”
The game ended, and Jane ran over to me. “I did good, didn’t I, Sandy?”
Hugging her, I said, “Yes you did, Jane!” We walked to lunch, arm in arm, and then said our good-byes. That was the last time I saw her. Although we corresponded during most of my college years, the letters eventually stopped.
A few years later, I sent a letter to my special friend. I wanted her to come to my wedding. I pictured her saying, “You did good, Sandy,” cheering me on like I had done for her. Unfortunately, the letter was returned – “No such person at this address.” I felt heartbroken.
Because of Jane, I now find joy in the little things. I know that winning isn’t the only thing that matters. When life sends me in an unexpected direction, I now get right back on course and start again, as I try to wear Jane’s smile.
Every once in a while, I can feel her arm rest on my shoulder as she says, “Hi Sandy, I’m Jane. You did good.”
Sandra J. Bunch http://www.chickensoup.com