Hope unites Special Olympics athletes

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Hope unites Special Olympics athletes

At Incheon International Airport on Tuesday, a mother gave a big hug to her big son, who was wearing a silver-colored winter jacket. “Go play and have fun. Always follow and listen to your teacher,” Kim Mi-gyeong, 42, from Uijeongbu, worriedly told him, as if she were sending a small child to a distant land.
Hong Sang-ryeong, 15, looks like an adult, but he suffers from serious autism and has the mind of a young child. He was taking part in the Special Olympics World Winter Games in Nagano, Japan as a speed skater. The Special Olympics is a sports festival for people with mental disabilities.
Next to Sang-ryeong stood Lee Uk-jin, 15, who also was participating in the speed skating tournament. He was holding his mother Lee Gui-ok’s hand and crying, complaining about his pimples.
It was the first time that the mothers would be apart from their sons for more than five days. Ever since Ms. Kim and Ms. Lee discovered the symptoms of autism in their sons when they were small, they have been following their children like shadows.
At the airport, the boys’ coach, Kim Yun-gyeong, reassured the mothers and said it would be a great chance for them to take a trip while their sons were away. The mothers were still too concerned to think about such a thing.
“I’m worried my son may cause trouble on the airplane or in another country,” Ms. Kim said. “But, I’m not going to live longer than my son and he cannot depend on me forever. I should give him this kind of chance more often.”
Out of 19 athletes from Korea participating in the Olympics, about half are autistic. The other half were born with Down syndrome or other developmental disorders. They are participating in three fields ― speed skating, figure skating and Alpine skiing ― among seven winter sports in the Olympics.
Mr. Kim, the coach, said, “These kids are emotionally very sensitive. Convincing the moody children to practice each day was the most difficult part.”
Finding a space for the skaters to practice also was difficult. But last November, they rented an indoor skating rink from 10 p.m. to midnight for two months. The skaters’ mothers remained throughout the practice since they had to do everything, including tying their children’s shoelaces.
Finally, the mothers’ efforts paid off, and on Tuesday their brave children boarded the plane. No one was talking about medals to the Olympic warriors, though. Parents and teachers who came to see them off said just one thing, “Sweetie, go play and have fun.”

by Kim Jung-soo
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