Special Olympics' New Global Ambassador Leads By Example

August 23, 2011

His is a tale that appeals to many people -- the story of a physically awkward kid who struggled with learning and behavior problems; but overcame them all to become one of the greatest swimmers of all time. But for Special Olympics athletes, the Michael Phelps story has an added meaning: he's living proof that determination can lead to skill and that skill can lead to triumph.

Michael Phelps in a pool with Special Olympics Athletes Dong Fang and Fu Yin Ping

Michael Phelps in Shanghai, China with Special Olympics athletes Dong Fang and Fu Yin Ping, running a Special Olympics swimming clinic. Meet other Special Olympics Global Ambassadors.

Earlier this month, Special Olympics named the 14-time Olympic Gold Medalist a Global Ambassador and announced a new partnership with the Michael Phelps Foundation. The mutual goal is to bring health, wellness and expert instruction to our athletes, as well as potentially life-saving information on water safety. As Global Ambassador, Michael Phelps will boost Special Olympics' efforts to raise awareness and transform attitudes about people with intellectual disabilities.


Brighter Futures Through Sport

Of course, he's been working toward that goal for years. In 2007, he held a swimming clinic for Special Olympics athletes in China ahead of the 2007 World Summer Games. He jumped into the pool with the athletes and gave hands-on lessons, offering some of his favorite tips. In 2009, he took part in a swimming exhibition in Baltimore for Special Olympics athletes, swimming laps side-by-side with special guest Andy Miyares.  The experience was a dream come true for Andy, an accomplished athlete in his own right and the only swimmer with intellectual disabilities to ever be ranked  in top 10 by U.S. Master's Swimming. 

Now Michael Phelps is hoping to take this mission further. Phelps says he doesn't just want to improve the skills of Special Olympics athletes today, but improve their futures: "Together we can help grow the sport of swimming while also encouraging active and healthy lifestyles for people of all ages and abilities."

Inspiration to Reach for Their Dreams

Even before he became a Global Ambassador, Michael Phelps has been inspiring our athletes. Ask Special Olympics athlete Zachary Poston, whose dreams began in a pool just downstate from where Michael Phelps trained. Zachary has been with Special Olympics for four years and had long dreamed of winning gold at a World Games ... someday. With that goal in mind, Zachary -- who has autism -- has been stepping up his game.

After months of training and practice, Zachary won four gold medals at this year’s Maryland State Summer Games. By then he already knew he'd been picked as the only Maryland swimmer representing the U.S. at the Special Olympics World Summer Games in Athens, Greece – also the site of the 2004 International Summer Olympics Games. And that's when his big moment came. That's when Zachary swam -- and won -- the 400-meter freestyle in the very same pool where Michael Phelps won his first Olympic gold medals. Zachary calls it, simply, the "greatest thing that ever happened to me."

"I know I can"

Watching it all was Zachary's Team USA coach, who knows first-hand how sport can bring out the best in athletes -- of all abilities. Phil Wetzler started out years ago as a coach at the Maryland Aquatic Center where Michael Phelps trained. For the last several years, he's been coaching Special Olympics athletes including at the 2007 Special Olympics World Summer Games in Shanghai and, most recently, in Athens. He says coaching Special Olympics athletes is about skill, about determination, but it's also about heart. His favorite part of coaching is "getting these kids, some who don't even speak much, to say the words 'I know I can, I know I can.' Before you know it, they are cheering and shouting it" -- and achieving the goals they'd never thought they could reach.

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