Shrull: ‘Normal for a little while’
It was a soccer game like any other youth soccer game. There was cheering, clapping, groans and celebrations. On the field, there were goals and saves and great teamwork.
But this wasn’t a normal youth soccer game. This was the 2013 Special Olympics Colorado Summer Games.
For 13-year-old Tori Smith and the rest of the Mesa County School District 51 girls team, it was 110 percent normal.
Normal is a powerful word to Tori and the rest of these athletes.
“It was so fun. It gave us all the chance to be normal for a little while,” she says with a huge smile below her glasses.
That sentence, that one sentence, can bring tears to your eyes, a lump in your throat and a knot in your stomach.
“Normal for a little while.”
Most of us can’t begin to understand.
This unified team playing at Bergman Field was made up of a combination of special-needs kids and non-special needs kids.
Tori dribbled the ball methodically toward the goal and kicked the ball into the net. The crowd cheered and Tori was congratulated by her teammates.
Smiling, sweating, pushing herself — Tori was just another teammate.
Katie Smith (no relation to Tori) and Riley Trujillo are a pair of gifted 13-year-old soccer players who play on the Fire, a U14 Premier girls club team.
On Sunday, they played shoulder to shoulder with Special Olympians. They came to play soccer with their friends and make new friends.
“It was really fun to see how much fun they have,” Riley says. “You see how much we’re alike, you see that they are just like us.”
They aren’t just friends. They are classmates, brought together by soccer and now bonded by friendship and understanding.
“When I see them in the halls (at school), I make a point to talk to them,” Riley says, “just let them know that you’re their friend.”
This weekend, they played together, they celebrated together — joy and happiness on the soccer field. That’s normal.
“It really helps me understand what they have to go through,” Riley says, words that seem beyond her 13 years. “I wish more people could understand them like we do.
“I see people point and stare at them, and we see them as our friends.”
Katie says two of her Special Olympics soccer teammates are also in her school.
“We just treat them like everyone else,” she says.
Being on the soccer field with the special-needs kids has left a deep impression on Katie and her club teammates.
“It’s really opened my eyes a lot, and I have a better understanding of them and what they go through. I don’t treat them like the odd person out,” Katie says.
The club players are patient and helpful on the field. These games are not about or for them. They are there to help and be partners to the Special Olympians.
Speaking of words far, far, far beyond her years, Tori, who was born without the radius bone (forearm) in both arms, talks about normal with unbelievable simplicity and clarity.
“This gives us the chance to experience what we would if we were normal,” she says, her voice packed with enthusiasm and pure joy.
Then she reveals what might be the best part of the game for them.
“And we don’t get treated any differently,” she says. “It’s so fun. That’s what Special Olympics means to me. It gives me a goal and it’s so much fun.”
Her explanations are deep and thought-provoking.
“It adds a distraction. So many of us have to go to the doctor or get medical treatments. This is a distraction. It lets us be kids.”
Normal, the chance for kids to be kids.
Impossible for most of us to understand or comprehend.
Thanks, Tori, for helping us understand a little better.
For Delaney McLaughlin, 13, she says that she gets teased sometimes.
“(Soccer) makes me feel normal,” she says. “It’s so much fun.”
For Tori, Delaney and others, soccer is an escape. It’s a playground. For all youngsters, the playing field is an escape. For most, it’s just part of a normal life. A life not filled with catching glances or pointed fingers.
For Tori, it means the same thing that it does to everyone else.
“We had so much fun and you get to make new friends,” she says.
For Shaun Howe, who coaches both the U14 Fire team and a Special Olympics team, the mingling of players makes it very special.
“What’s great about it is they get to go to school and see the kids, and they’re friends at school,” he says.
His 14-year-old special-needs daughter, Hannah Howe, is on the team. Her smile was still with her 10 minutes after the game.
“I like to be the goalie,” she says.
The team gathered after the game and congratulated one another, then they went through the line to congratulate the other team.
After members of the MCSD 51 team received their gold medals, Tori couldn’t stop touching it, looking at it, admiring it. Then Mom snapped photos.
“I’m so blessed to have her. She amazes me everyday,” says Deana Smith, Tori’s stratospherically proud mom.
Riley posed with Hannah as a parent snapped a cell phone photo. It was Riley’s phone. A photo, a keepsake of an unforgettable day, a memorable weekend where she helped provide a lot of normalcy to kids who don’t always have that. She looks at the photo, admires it and smiles.
On this day, the game of soccer was played. But it was far from normal.
The purity of sports was on display. Friends and teammates were having fun and enjoying time on the field and in the sun.
“Normal,” it’s a word we all know, but maybe it’s a word we should all know a little better.
“I can do normal stuff,” Tori says. “And when I play sports, I am normal.”
Just like everyone else.