This weekend I will officiate 3 full-court basketball games for The Special Olympics. My friend, Coach E, and I have volunteered our services for several years and it has evolved into a special spring tradition for both of us.
Special Olympic athletes represent a spectrum of skill levels and abilities. Some can run, some can only walk slowly. Some have great eyesight, othes can barely lift their chins to see where they are moving. Some are physically challenged, others emotionally so. Communicating with them on where to stand at the free throw line, or where to throw the ball in requires patience and compassion. They are all special, and being on the court with them is an opportunity like no other to give of myself. I silently cheer each player on, rarely blowing my whistle, and bringing a little bit of joy to the players, coaches and their families for three hours a year.
This year's games are especially poignant for me due to recent personal events that forced me to realize that the greatest skill I bring to the Special Olympics is not my officiating experience. Rather, it is my ability to walk.
My mom underwent hip replacement surgery in January. This procedure was successful, but within a week of her discharge from the hospital, she fell and sustained a spinal compression fracture. Today, eight weeks later, she is healing slowly and undergoing excrutiating physical therapy to regain her muscular strength to perform the task of walking. I spend several hours each day with mom in the nursing/ rehabilitation center giving her emotional support and helping her with strength-building exercises. On two occasions, I departed the center in the late afternoon to officiate games, and was struck by how much I take for granted my ability to walk, to run up and down the court, while my mom is challenged to take two steps without falling.
Mom, at least temporarily, and many of the Special Olympic athletes I have seen, share something in common: an inability to move freely, requiring assistance in some cases or at least watchful eyes to ensure their physical safety. In mom's case, time will heal her and independence will return. For the Special Olympic athletes, most are already at their peak physical health and ability. These observations put a different perspective on officiating and what it represents. On one level, officiating is rule enforcement. But when taken in context of my recent experience, officiating is really honoring one of life's greatest gifts - the gift of good health.
Officiating celebrates the freedom to walk, run and sprint to the end line using the strength of our legs and feet. It requires we use clear and powerful lungs to fuel our stamina, breathing properly and keeping pace with the players. It uses strong shoulder, arms, and voices to commmunicate with our partners through officiating mechanics. We do all these things without giving it a second thought, several nights in a row, because our health allows it.
I realize how blessed I am when officiating Special Olympics and humbled by the fact that there are those who, for whatever reason, lack good health and cannot do what I take for granted every basketball season. I owe it to Special Olympics and to my mom to stay healthy, active and fit so I can be there for them. Their challenges, while disheartening, are a clear and powerful message to me, and hopefully to those who read this blog that our mental and physical health are gifts that keep on giving when we use them in the service of others.