This weekend, much of the sports world turns its attention to college basketball’s March Madness. But there’s another sporting event going on, and this one has Olympic gold on the line. The Special Olympics World Games are in Austria this year, and will be nationally televised on ESPN. Arizona is sending three athletes – all from Flagstaff. Arizona Public Radio’s Aaron Granillo introduces us to one of them, Deven Taylor, a two-time Olympic cross-country skier. A former ambassador for the games, Taylor shines a spotlight on athletes who are often overlooked and stigmatized.
Taylor is a big comic book guy. In his bedroom, he has posters of Batman, Harley Quinn, and the Joker. Taylor, himself, is no joke at all. And, he’s got the awards to prove it.
"These are the medals that I won," Taylor says. "I’ve got three gold."
Taylor was diagnosed with a cognitive disability as a child. Now 24, he still reads at a fifth grade level, struggles with basic math concepts, and can’t tell time very well. Yet despite all that, Taylor holds a job at a grocery store, works out every day, and travels the world.
"This is from my trip to Poland. We were invited to go to a volleyball game," Taylor says. "I’ve also been to Belize, and what I was doing there was getting Special Olympics better known."
Taylor was nominated to go Belize three years ago as a global ambassador for the Games. He went there to help break down stereotypes about disabilities, and build confidence in young athletes.
"Kids with disabilities don’t go to, like, a regular school over there, or don’t go to school at all," Taylor says. "We were there to see what they live with, I guess, and, like, hang out with them for the day."
The United States has its own history of exclusion. For decades, many people with cognitive and physical impairments were routinely institutionalized. Then in 1968, Eunice Kennedy Shriver founded the Special Olympics. She was inspired by her older sister, Rosemary, who was born with a cognitive disability, and later lobotomized, leaving her virtually incapacitated. Shriver wanted justice for people seen as less than human. Deven Taylor’s mother, Donna, wants the same for her son.
"All through grade school, he was bullied very horribly. Horribly," Donna says. "That word, 'retarded,”' is so offensive to these kids. So offensive. And, we all use it loosely."
Donna believes the word is cruel and marginalizing. She says Special Olympians have grit like no other athlete.
"They have guts that you and I will never have. And they don’t give up," Donna says. "When you go watch them compete, I don’t care if somebody’s a mile behind somebody else, there’s never a time those kids stop."
A few weeks before the Games in Austria, Deven gets some practice in by competing at a local cross country skiing race.
"Deven Taylor, come on over here! World games athlete," shouts Carol Sharp, Deven's coach. She’s been training Deven since middle school.
"I think it’s opening the eyes from the people around the world, I guess, to see that people with intellectual disabilities do have that ability to perform well," Sharps says. "You know, everybody has their differences, and we have to celebrate those."
Spectators cheers on Deven, as he easily glides past the finish line for a first place medal, out of breath, after skiing 500-meters.
"It's good," Deven says. "A smidge icy out in some places, but good."
This weekend, Taylor joins thousands of athletes from more than 100-countries for the 49th Special Olympics World Games in Austria.
The Opening Ceremony will be broadcast on Saturday, March 18th at 11am on ESPN.