Special Olympics are Truly Special for Utrecht

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Ragna Schapendonk is a sporty mother who enjoys new journeys and challenges to get inspired and motivate others. She feels that sport has the power to change the world.

“It is the playground where all sorts of people meet and play. Through sport I bring people in contact with each other. Because changing the world is a contact sport.”

Ragna is also the inspirational National Director Special Olympics Netherlands.

Photograph by Bart Weerdenburg

Tell us a bit about how you became involved with Special Olympics

“Ten years ago, I applied for the Event Manager job, because of my interest in sports events. I wanted to change, inspire and improve lives of people with intellectual disability and the lives of those who enjoy their presence.”

Ragna explained what Special Olympics is:

“Through the power of sports, people with intellectual disabilities discover new strengths and abilities, skills and success. Our athletes inspire people in their communities and elsewhere to open their hearts to a wider world of human talents and potential.”

The mission of Special Olympics is to provide year-round sports training and athletic competition in a variety of Olympic-type sports for children and adults with intellectual disabilities. This gives them continuing opportunities to develop physical fitness, demonstrate courage, experience joy and participate in a sharing of gifts, skills and friendship with their families, other Special Olympics athletes and the community.

The Special Olympics mission remains as vital today as it did when the movement was founded in 1968. Special Olympics strives to create a better world by fostering the acceptance and inclusion of all people.

Through the power of sports, people with intellectual disabilities discover new strengths and abilities, skills and success. Our athletes find joy, confidence and fulfillment — on the playing field and in life. They also inspire people in their communities and elsewhere to open their hearts to a wider world of human talents and potential.

There are as many as 200 million people with intellectual disabilities around the world. Our goal is to reach out to every one of them – and their families as well. Special Olympics does this through a wide range of training, competitions, health screenings and fund-raising events. We also create opportunities for families, community members, local leaders, businesses, law enforcement, celebrities, dignitaries and others to band together to change attitudes and support athletes.

The transformative power of sports to instil confidence, improve health and inspire a sense of competition is at the core of what Special Olympics does. From the detailed coaching guides we provide in many languages to the sharp-eyed officials at our international games, the focus is on real sports, real competition, real achievements.

In Special Olympics, the power and joy of sport, shifts focus to what our athletes CAN do, not what they can’t. Attention to disabilities fades away. Instead, we see our athletes’ talents and abilities — and applaud them for all that they can do. And they are doing a lot — from gymnastics to soccer to open-water swimming. With our 30-plus Olympic-style sports, we offer adults and children with intellectual disabilities many ways to be involved in their communities, many ways to show who they really are.”

I remember volunteering here in Leicester many years ago and it meant an awful lot to me, and Special Olympics here in The Netherlands look for volunteer support. They need volunteers helping out to organise their project Play Unified activities at Special Olympics clubs

Play Unified is a global movement aimed at ending the injustice, intolerance and inactivity of young people with intellectual disabilities, by building a unified generation through sport. By playing together on one field we build the UNIFIED GENERATION

How many athletes do you think are taking part in The Netherlands?

“20.000 are member of sport clubs. 3000 participate in Special Olympics Netherlands Events

We are developing a Young Athletes (2-7 years) programme together with the Gymnastic Federation”

Special Olympics want to see more athletes taking part because at the moment, only 20.000 are active in sports clubs out of 160.000 people with Intellectual Disabilities living in the Netherlands. Parents should bring them to the sports club in the neighbourhood. You can find on at www.unieksporten.nl

Ragna moved to Utrecht because it has the feeling of a village being nice and cosy, whilst still having the vibes of the city and their Head Office is in Utrecht.

What is your favourite place in Utrecht?

“Ledig erf.”

Does Utrecht inspire you?

“Yes, it is a perfect city in which to run and to cycle and to get new ideas by doing that. And I love the Dom Tower.”

Does Utrecht as a city do enough for the Special Olympics?

“Utrecht was not an early adopter as I might say. The have the fewest opportunities available for athletes.”

Is there a specific group of Special Olympic clubs in the city?

“Kampong. With Hockey and Tennis.”

Ragna wants to see the International Special Olympics held in Utrecht one day and from my own experience in Leicester I know what a wonderfully uplifting experience this would be for the city. I have such fond memories and friendships made from all those years ago in 1989.

What is it most about the Special Olympics that inspires you?

The pureness, openness and the athletes are truly honest

As Ragna concludes:

‘Diversity is to be invited to the party. Inclusion is to dance together.’

She asks you to invite people you know with intellectual disability to come to the Play Ground And Let’s Play Unified

All #PlayUnified photographs by Christijn Groeneveld

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Jon Wilkins

Jon Wilkins

Jon Wilkins is Welsh and lives in England. He is a writer. A Europhile and Remainer, he is a regular visitor to Utrecht and has set his crime novel series in the city.

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