It’s officially been over 45 years since Special Olympics (not to be confused with the Paralympics) were formed Down Under, giving countless Aussies with intellectual disabilities the opportunity to play the sport they love surrounded by an encouraging, hands-on community of family, mates, volunteers and everyone in-between who support and challenge one another.
The global movement has also introduced us to young guns like Maddy Fox, who has been competing in Special Olympics for over a decade. Keep in mind, Maddy’s still only in her early-20s, and the last time I stuck to a passion for a decade was…never? And I’m almost 30? You get the gist.
We spoke to Maddy as well as her Mum-slash-coach Karen Fox, to hear all things swimming (Maddy’s forté), competing and their journey over the past 12 years.
PEDESTRIAN.TV: Do you remember the first time you knew one of your passions was swimming?
Maddy Fox: I always swam from when I was one. I did swimming lessons just like my sisters. When I was 12, my Mum wanted me to join Special Olympics, so I tried basketball, but I was too little and somebody there suggested I try swimming.
I went the next week and had lots of fun. That was where the passion started. At first, I couldn’t even swim a lap and I used to watch all the other kids and how fantastic I thought they were. Now my favourite event is the 400m freestyle and 200m backstroke. I train six times a week in the pool with Special Olympics and Geelong Swimming Club and four times a week in the gym. I now understand if you train hard, you get lots of opportunities to compete and do well.
P.TV: What have been some of your best experiences since competing in Special Olympics?
MF: My first state games were the best. I had never really competed before. Everyone was clapping and I even won a medal. Since then, I have had many other opportunities to compete. I was able to go to Special Olympics Junior Nationals in 2012 and had so much fun and then when I was selected for Special Olympics Nationals in Melbourne in 2014, I was hooked.
My family friends came to see me swim and I tried really hard. Since then, I have continued training hard and have gone to the 2018 Special Olympics Nationals in Adelaide and been to four Down Syndrome National Championships and World Down Syndrome Championships in Canada. Swimming with Special Olympics has enabled me to travel, learn commitment and dedication.
The best experience that I have had though is making so many friends. I have awesome friends in my club that I do things with at swimming and outside swimming (we even went on a cruise together), but I have also made so many other friends from other clubs and states that I have met at swimming competitions and when we have been on teams together. We all speak all the time, even when we aren’t swimming. This year I also joined Special Olympics Athlete Leadership Program and have been working with mentors to be better at being a good representative for Special Olympics and increase my leadership skills both at training and within the community.
P.TV: You’ve been competing since 2011, what have you learnt during your time in Special Olympics?
MF: That to be good at competing and race fast you have to train hard, listen to your coaches, be respectful to officials and practice, practice, practice, but that it is more important to be a good person and be a good role model for the new athletes and to work as part of a team and support your friends.
P.TV: What was it like seeing Maddi compete for the first time?
Karen Fox: I think I was more nervous than her. She had never experienced anything like that before and she was so little. She had not long mastered swimming a whole lap without stopping. The families from Special Olympics Melbourne Inner East were so supportive – everyone was cheering for her. The look on her face when she finished was one of complete joy and accomplishment.
P.TV: How do you balance the Mum/coaching dynamic?
KF: We are lucky that we have always had a fantastic team of coaches that each bring a specialty to the club. I am just one member of that team. I try to play coach and not Mum at swimming and make it fair for everyone. I still get excited when I see her race.
We all work well together and with awesome support from our families and the Melbourne Inner East Committee.
P.TV: How have you seen Maddy progress since she started with Special Olympics?
KF: Maddy has changed so much since that first day we tried Special Olympics. I use to walk up and down the side of the pool with her because I wasn’t sure she would make it all the way. I looked in awe at the other athletes and how incredible they were and what they could do. Fast-forward 12 years and Maddy is a confident and independent woman. She is very supportive towards her teammates and is the first one to be there for all the new athletes that come along showing them what to do.
She is continuing to develop her communication skills, confidence and leadership skills through the Athlete Leadership Program. Her swimming ability grows each day with her dedication to training and the independence that she has gained from it. We are proud of the person that she has become and the goals that she has achieved and love to watch her continue to grow both in the pool and out of the pool.
P.TV: What have been some challenges for you, and everyone involved in Special Olympics have faced since COVID-19?
KF: So many challenges have arisen because of COVID. So much uncertainty, when you can train and when you can’t, competitions cancelled and rebooked, and when venues can be accessed. What I have learnt is that my incredible Melbourne Inner East swimming gang are very resilient and are happy to go with the flow and adapt to change at a minute’s notice.
We have made the most of the situation and started a WhatsApp group at the very beginning so everyone could chat with each other. Staying in touch with everyone and communication has been the most vital thing during this time. They share photos of what they have all been up to and keep in contact with each other. We have continued “training”, albeit virtually. Every Wednesday during lockdown we have had Zoom meetings catching up with what is going on with everyone, how people are filling in time, what they have been cooking, what exercises they have been doing and then we play games, set challenges and have even had a few Zoom dinners together.
It’s been a great way for everyone to keep in contact with each other. Secretly I do it for me because the thing I missed the most is hanging out with the gang.
We’re no stranger to the pandemic throwing everything and everyone for a loop but it truly has thrown a spanner in the works for community-based initiatives like Special Olympics. I zone out of zoom meetings in five minutes, so how you’re supposed to effectively train for a physical sport on there is beyond me (and a huge testament to the resilience of the athletes).
Pierre Comis, Special Olympics Australia Chief Executive Officer, discusses how they’ve also utilised partnerships with the likes of Play For Purpose to help keep funding afloat.
“COVID has been devasting on fundraising and social connection for Special Olympics,” Pierre confirms. “Most of our fundraising events are face-to-face, giving people a genuine opportunity to understand and experience the impact our sport and healthy lifestyle programs have on the lives of people with intellectual disabilities.
“Unfortunately, COVID has wiped out those opportunities. This is why we’re using exciting fundraising platforms such as Play For Purpose, which allow us to raise funds to help deliver programs whilst giving our supporters the chance to win great prizes.”
You can grab your $10 raffle tickets in support of us at this website: Play For Purpose Special Olympics. Every ticket gives you the chance to win the first prize worth $250,000, which is a win for them and for us.
$5 from the tickets sold then go to every avenue that keeps Special Olympics afloat, which is, during these times, a much harder battle.
If you want to get involved with Special Olympics, whether it’s to volunteer, join a program or compete in the games themselves, check out all of the options right here.