The Washington Post

First Person: Rory Riley, 31, Washington, Special Olympics gymnastics coach

(Joshua Yospyn/For The Washington Post)

I took my first gymnastics class at age 3. The only thing I remember is an obstacle course exercise that involved walking on the beam. The instructor said: “When we walk on the beam, we use airplane arms. We put our arms out to help us balance.” Being a stubborn kid, I said, “I don’t need help to balance,” and put my arms down at my side and walked across that beam. I was a fearless kid. They would say, “Try this,” and I would try, land on my head and just keep doing it until I got it. Learning that mind-set, falling on your head
or running into obstacles and not letting that stop me has certainly helped with my job [as staff director on the House Veterans’ Affairs Subcommittee on Disability Assistance and Memorial Affairs] on the Hill and with working with athletes who are very persistent but also require patience.

The gym was my life. The Special Olympics practice started right when mine ended. Someone at the gym said, “We think you’d be a good fit. Would you mind staying an extra hour?” I was 14. I was putting in about 40 hours at this point. Staying there an extra hour — why wouldn’t I? It was just the most natural progression: I love gymnastics, and here were these people who wanted to learn more about gymnastics. I want them to experience what I experience. My role, when I first started, was to bring the technical expertise. I didn’t have any experience working with athletes with disabilities. But because I was so young, I didn’t let that trip me up. When I was applying for colleges much later, I remember people saying, “Oh, that’s going to look so good on your application.” I had never ever thought of it like that. I wanted to be there.

I blew my knee out. That’s what ended my career. With one bad landing, I broke my leg, had four surgeries. I went through this couple-week period of depression. Everything I’d worked for was gone. I didn’t know what to do. I was always on the move. That’s who I was. I’d coached before then, but Special Olympics became something much deeper when I could no longer compete.

Sports, in any context, are about pushing yourself to the limit. In the Special Olympics context, we have athletes, through no fault of their own, who have had so many limitations placed on them. If you expect instant results, this is not for you. On the flip side, you are coming into a family. For example, right now I have a voice mail from Mandy, an athlete in Texas, just talking about how much she’s looking forward to seeing me. My parents don’t leave messages this nice. I get to pick up my phone and listen to that. It pulls me right out of whatever silliness or cynicism is trying to bring me down. I bounce right back to what’s happy in my life, what’s important. My athletes keep me balanced.

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