The Enduring Spirit of Michigan’s Special Olympics Athletes

In 2000, the former President of South Africa Nelson Mandela said: “Sport has the power to change the world. It has the power to inspire. It has the power to unite people in a way that little else does…Sport can create hope where once there was only despair…It laughs in the face of all types of discrimination.” In Michigan, there are some amazing athletes who would surely agree with Mr. Mandela.


Since 1968, when the first Special Olympics Games were held at Chicago’s Soldier Field, these athletes with intellectual disabilities have been a force of inspiration and support for one another. The goal was to put a bright—and very public—spotlight on ability, not disability. A delegation of athletes from Michigan attended those original games. The next year, Michigan’s first State Summer Games took place in Kalamazoo at Western Michigan University. Fifty years later, more than 5 million athletes train and compete in more than 100,000 events each year, in 172 nations. The program has grown perhaps more than anyone could have anticipated and the impact is massive. Yet it still brings meaning to one athlete, one coach, and one family at a time.


Max Hinga was just 8 years old when his curiosity was sparked at his elementary school in Portage, Michigan, by a friend who first mentioned Special Olympics to him. Max then began his sports journey with softball. “I was the youngest and smallest player on an almost all-adult team,” said Max. “But I was ready to go and felt at home.” From that point on, Max’s involvement became a life-altering experience, introducing him to lifelong friendships and instilling in him a sense of belonging. Max’s mother Gretchen Hinga became equally involved, as she noticed there were significantly more adult athletes than those her son’s age. “Within a year, I was recruiting younger athletes,” said Gretchen. “With more athletes comes the need for more volunteers. So, I started recruiting for volunteers.” In no time, the numbers grew, and Gretchen found herself as the local outreach coordinator. She now plays a pivotal role in managing, coordinating, and organizing various aspects of the games, from athlete physicals to volunteer applications and verifying coaching credentials.


Max’s dedication extends beyond the playing field; he has become a U.S. Youth Ambassador, amplifying the voices of those who often go unheard. “Not everyone can get up and speak to the whole world about change and inclusion,” said Max. “I traveled with my Unified Partner and my mentor, spoke about inclusion, and learned how to spread the word to others.” For Gretchen, Special Olympics is more than just a series of events; it is a community that provided support and companionship while Max was growing up. Now, as a coordinator, she is dedicated to extending that sense of community to others. “Special Olympics is about so much more than just sports. It is one big family of support and encouragement,” said Gretchen. “It is a lifelong movement and is for anyone.” She encourages those who may not qualify as athletes to become volunteers, assuring them that the experience will be life-changing.


The impact of the games can’t be easily measured, as passion, inclusion, and growth of the athletes, families, and volunteers have an ongoing ripple effect that goes well beyond the sporting arena. “Special Olympics challenged me to not only want to get my driver’s license, but show many people I can be a leader,” said Max. “We (athletes) can get a job, get a degree, and be who we want to be. I’ve turned my disabilities into abilities.” This smart and capable young man insists that no one should ever say they can’t do something. Our efforts can’t be measured in medals or applause. It is the effort, the courage, and the joy with which we apply ourselves that tells the world who we are. As Eunice Kennedy Shriver, who helped establish Special Olympics, said at the first opening games: “Let me win. But if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt.”


For over 50 years, Special Olympics Michigan (SOMI)has sought to create a community of inclusion where every person is accepted and welcomed, regardless of ability or disability. In 2019, the SOMI Board of Directors purchased the former South Christian High School building in Grand Rapids with the dream of turning this127,000-square-foot facility on 17 acres into the largest Special Olympics training and sports center in the world. With the official groundbreaking in November 2023, the complex will feature six soccer fields, 10 bocce courts, putting and chipping greens, and pickleball courts, as well as an eight-lane track and an artificial turf soccer and flag football field.

Emily Haines Lloyd
Emily Haines Lloyd is a communications specialist at Wolverine Power Cooperative. She has worked in advertising and marketing for over twenty years and has written features for publications like – MLive, Medium, and Elephant Journal.


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