Inspiration from unexpected heroes

Got sports? Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you do. In recent weeks, we’ve been watching the college elite battle for the championship in the NCAA basketball tournaments. Prior to tourney season, we also celebrated an incredible showing by the United States team at the Olympics in Vancouver.

It’s been exciting to witness the astonishing ability of our nation’s young athletes on their journey to excellence and I’ve been particularly drawn to some of the stories about where athletes are finding their inspiration.

During the Olympics, moguls skier Alex Bilodeau rose to fame as he captured team Canada’s first ever Olympic gold medal on home soil. Immediately after Bilodeau won, the TV cameras cut to the frenzied celebration of his brother, Frederic. Frederic isn’t just another happy family member, however; he is the inspiration for his famous brother’s success. And he’s living with cerebral palsy.

In numerous interviews, Alex shared the story of Frederic, who has far exceeded the expectations of his doctors. Furthermore, he approaches each day with a smile and never complains. So when Alex is tired and sore and struggling with his rigorous training regimen, he moves past it by thinking of Frederic.

There’s a similarly compelling story about a young woman named Elena Delle Donne, who is arguably the most gifted basketball player in the country. She was offered a scholarship in the seventh grade, scored more points than anyone in Delaware high school history and joined the wildly successful University of Connecticut basketball team.

One more thing. Elena’s hero is her sister, who is blind, deaf and has cerebral palsy. In fact, her sister is the reason she abruptly gave up her golden spot on the UConn roster and headed back to Delaware. The world of women’s basketball was in an uproar when she made her decision, but Elena’s rationale was simple, she missed Lizzie, who couldn’t communicate with her when she was away from home.

These stories present a pattern of inspiration that I find interesting. People with unique cognitive attributes that we dismissively call “disabilities” so often emerge as heroes — which I believe is no accident. Why does this pattern happen over and over again, and what lesson can we draw? I have heard people who have a sibling with a unique developmental or cognitive condition describe their brother or sister as pure, someone who is totally real and without pretense. It’s a reality check for people, especially people like athletes or others striving for “success,” who live in the celebrity spotlight and don’t get many opportunities to see themselves with clarity.

I’ve learned that when the construct of pretension is eliminated, new possibilities emerge. You feel naked when you engage with a person who perceives the world so purely, a person who doesn’t waste their ability on pretension, and part of that is the disruption of patterns. The artificial rules and norms that typically govern conversation disappear, and you start to experience the intense human connection that invariably follows.

I witnessed this phenomenon at an event recently, where guest after guest pursued conversations with the two men who were spotlighted — each of whom has a “disability.” Keyshon and Laethan were the celebrities of the night, even though they were surrounded by highly successful business executives, community leaders and other “VIPs.” Why? Because people want to experience that interaction, that purity. It’s one of the many amazing gifts that people with unique developmental conditions offer: a deeper level of human engagement.

So while we’re cheering on our favorite athlete or team during the next big championship, let’s also keep in mind the limits of the “success” business — and start getting focused on things that really count. Like finding inspiration in unexpected heroes and pursuing deep human connection intentionally instead of reading about it occasionally.

Tom Everill is the President & CEO of Northwest Center, which contributes monthly columns for this publication. Contact him at inside@nwcenter.org if there are topics related to people with disabilities that would interest you.

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