'I just want to run': Special Olympics touches the lives of those with disabilities

Olympic champion Allyson Felix meets future athletes at NYU's state of the art venue

Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, November 14, 2017:    American Olympian Allyson Felix poses with Special Olympic athletes during the launch event of the 9th MENA Special Olympics 2018 and the Special Olympics World Games 2019 at New York University Abu Dhabi on Saadiyat Island in Abu Dhabi on November 14, 2017. Christopher Pike / The National

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Khadija Al Zaabi doesn’t know how many medals her daughter has won, but she knows that each of them is a milestone.

“They are so many, I can't count them but every time she gets one of them, she’s a different person – she’s happy," she said.

Her daughter, Maryam, who suffers from learning difficulties, and is one of about 1,200 athletes that are expected to take part in the Special Olympics Middle East and North Africa Regional Games in March 2018.

The larger Special Olympics World Games will be held in Abu Dhabi in March 2019.

Maryam, a runner, has participated in previous events and always comes home with something to show her family.

“I run round and round and I don’t get tired. I am happy when I win. I just want to run,” said Maryam, 29.

She and her friend Shaima Zade, who suffers from cerebral palsy, are members of the Dubai Club for Special Needs. Running is their life, said Shaima’s elder sister, Fahmeeda, who is also an administrator at the club. The centre takes them for training for a few hours a day from 5.00pm.

“Shaima gets ready from 11.00am. From the morning she gets dressed and just waits for when it’s time to go to the club," she said.

Sports have had a huge impact on her sister, she said.

“Before she joined the club one her legs used to be curved. Now its straight and she is more active,” she said.

New York University Abu Dhabi on Tuesday unveiled the facilities that will be used for the athletics and power lifting events at both games. Its Olympic-size swimming pool will also be used.

Peter Wheeler, CEO of Special Olympics World Games Abu Dhabi 2019, said: "NYUAD has world-class facilities as well as a hugely diverse student population who will make brilliant volunteers at the games. We are looking forward to working with them to put on the most unified Special Olympics Games in history."

The 2019 games will feature seven days of competition in 24 sports including basketball, athletics, golf, tennis, cycling, and swimming.

“It is vital. It really brings people together," said Allyson Felix, the American sprinter who won Olympic gold in the 200m at London 2012.

"It gives purpose and just seeing other parts of the world is very important," she said of the athletes that will be travelling to the UAE from across the globe.

"The inclusion that the Special Olympics will bring here is a great demonstration to the world of acceptance and pride in all abilities."

Nikolad Nielsen, a member of the NYU student body, said that the university is thrilled to be part of both games.

“We are here because we believe that sports brings joy and purpose to the lives of all kinds of athletes, no matter their abilities,” he said.

He shared a story of a young Emirati he met in 2016 for a series of swimming classes.

“I was not very confident in the water, and I had heard that Suhail was quite the swimmer, so I wondered if I could keep up with him," he said.

"Suhail is on the autism spectrum and finds it difficult to meet new people.

"But if he felt uncomfortable when we met, he did not show it, because as soon as we got in the water, he sprinted toward the deep end.

"In the weeks that followed, I learned more about swimming than he did, just so I could chase behind him in the pool. Suhail literally tested the boundaries for what he could do as an athlete with different intellectual abilities.

"He felt a magnetic pull toward competitive sports. He moved in the water with skill, but also with joy.”

The will be the first place country in the Middle East to host the Special Olympics World Games after unanimously winning the vote at a meeting of the Board of Directors in Washington DC in 2016.

A majority of the athletes have never been to this part of the world and will have a week to get used to the city and be introduced to the UAE and its culture, organsiers said.