Let me win But if I cannot win Let me be brave in the attempt
Motto of the Special Olympics
Willie James was attempting to be brave, but the scoreboard right beside him wasn't helping a bit.
"Canada 6, District of Columbia 5," it said. By one goal, in a thrilling floor hockey game, Willie's Washington Capitals had just been eliminated from the chase for a gold medal at the International Summer Special Olympic Games in Baton Rouge, La.
"Oh, man!" said Willie, a mentally handicapped 18-year-old from Northeast, as the sweat poured off his red hockey shirt and he fought to catch his breath. "Oh, man! Oh, boy! I thought we were gonna win for sure!" And he shook his head sorrowfully the way you do when you hear about tornadoes, plagues and other natural disasters.
Six months of hard training had brought Willie and the Capitals to last Wednesday afternoon's semifinal game. Throughout that time, I've followed Willie and the team as they prepared for the biggest athletic test of their lives. It was an inspiring sight--Washington kids who've never succeeded much or performed much getting themselves ready for a real run for some real roses.
But now, in the Centroplex in downtown Baton Rouge, as the Canadian boys celebrated only yards away, the Capitals had abruptly run out of track. Willie James, the starting center, could only stand there, hands on his hips, stunned. In the meantime, one of his teammates wept, others cursed and another banged his stick in frustration against a chair. "I don't know if I'll ever get over this," Willie said.
However, by late the next morning, he had certainly started to. In a game for third place, Washington defeated a team from Massachusetts, 2-1. It was every bit as hard-fought and well-played as the game the Capitals had lost the day before. And when former hockey star Ken Hodge draped a bronze medal the size of a healthy chocolate chip cookie around Willie's neck, Willie's smile said all that neeed saying.
In an age when professional coaches declare that winning is the only thing, the Special Olympics aims to use sports as a teachstering aggressiveness and competitiveness. The hope is that kids like Willie, who have trouble reading, writing and coping, can learn to collaborate in a team environmenrn how to get the best from themselves under pressure.
"I'd say Willie has certainly done that," said Anna mother, who was snapping away on the family Instamatic as Willie was bedecked with his medal. "I don't think he'll return to where he was. changed Willie, it has made him much more confident, much more outgoing. I'm so excited. It's just like it's a real championship, the big leagues."
"He's moving on now a beaming Stephen James, Willie's father, as the Capitals gave each other "high fives" and slaps on the back.fidence. He's a happy boy, huh?"
His coach, Wayne Miller, said that the progress of a Willie James "is what.
"If we lose," said Miller, speaking before the game against Canada, "I guarantee you that Willie will be s. But if we win, he'll be one of our best winners. He's learned to accept what comes. He's having fun. He's lse can you ask a sports program to be?"
When the referee blew his whistle to seal Washington's victory overmight also have been sounding "Taps" for Willie's formal athletic career. Ineligible for any future Internatiocs events (each child can participate only once), Willie says he may spend more time on his guitar lessons and his studies now. But he says he wouldn'ssed it--the loss as well as the many wins.
"It was good," said Willie, as we sat in a drafty grandstand 1,0 watching a championship game that the Capitals didn't quite reach. "It was very good. I feel good. It was worth it. Worth it very, very much."
Then he touched the medal once more. Just to be sure it's there? "Just to be sure it's there," said Willie James.