Athlete Spotlight: Sonya Roy
As members of an organization centered on sports, it can sometimes be difficult to convince those who are not involved of the life-changing power of the Special Olympics movement.
For people without an intellectual disability, it’s easy to take for granted the simple joy of competition — of practicing at something and gradually improving, of being a part of a team, and of earning a medal after months of hard work and dedication. But through sports, Special Olympics athletes often find something that they have been missing for their entire lives.
From an early age, Team Indiana runner Sonya Roy struggled to fit in because of a speech deficit and a learning disability.
In elementary school, she often felt like she was in trouble because teachers were impatient with her ability to talk or to keep up with the rest of the class. Kids made fun of her constantly, and her mother recalls one teacher in particular predicting that Sonya would never amount to anything, saying that she would be “no better than a door greeter at Wal-Mart.”
But when Sonya was in sixth grade, she discovered an ability she didn’t know she had. She became friends with a classmate named Kelsey, who loved to run and invited Sonya to join her.
Running soon became a passion, and Sonya was inspired to join the cross country and track teams at her middle school. But because of her disabilities, she was only permitted to participate as an “exhibition” runner.
“Do you know what my favorite part of the game is? The opportunity to play.”
— Mike Singletary
In high school, disheartened but undeterred, Sonya collected signatures from teachers and petitioned the school’s athletic department to grant her eligibility for full participation in sports. Sonya became the first person with an intellectual disability to compete in a varsity sport at her high school. Her story was featured in the school’s newspaper, and several of her fellow students sought her out to apologize for how they had mistreated her.
But then, one summer day just before her senior year, everything changed. Sonya was practicing with the cross country team and suddenly had to stop and tie a shoe. When she finished and stood up, she discovered that all of her teammates had continued to run and that she was alone in a large cemetery.
Sonya didn’t know where to go or how to get out, and became so scared that she had to call her parents to come and pick her up. The experience was so traumatic that she decided to stop participating in sports altogether.
But later that year, the Roy family found Special Olympics Indiana. As a member of the Johnson County program, Sonya was truly accepted by her new teammates and soon began to feel safe again.
She continued to run and to get stronger, and she saw her times improve with virtually every practice. Sonya had found sports on her own, but through Special Olympics she found the support she needed, demonstrating how important it is to be truly included as part of a team.
“Do not let what you cannot do interfere with what you can do.”
— John Wooden
Since high school, Sonya has struggled at times. She has sometimes been taken advantage of as she has sought acceptance, and—like many young people—has had a hard time choosing the “right” boyfriend. She has also suffered greatly from the loss of Kelsey, her friend and original running partner, who died suddenly at the age of 23.
But Special Olympics has been a constant in her life. Naturally a hard worker, Sonya has persisted as a distance runner, and last year was selected to represent Indiana at the 2018 Special Olympics USA Games.
As a member of Team Indiana, Sonya and her teammates will be among 4,000 competitors from across the nation to make the journey to Seattle this summer, where they will face off with the best of the best in a variety of team and individual sports.
But getting there won’t be easy. For nearly a year leading up to the Games, the members of Team Indiana are dedicating themselves to reaching their maximum potential by training harder than ever before and committing themselves to being physically and mentally prepared for competition.
And while Special Olympics athletes are never charged to participate in events, Sonya and her teammates are also working hard off the field to raise the funds necessary to offset the costs of travel, lodging, meals, and uniforms.
“You are the stars and the world is watching you. By your presence, you send a message to every city, every village, every nation. A message of hope, a message of victory.”
— Eunice Kennedy Shriver
Last December, Sonya was a guest of the Finish Line Youth Foundation as they hosted a fundraising dinner associated with their annual golf outing. At a particularly dramatic moment during the program, an auctioneer was brought to the stage. He challenged the audience to make donations that would support Team Indiana.
Sonya watched wide-eyed as person after person raised their hand and made a donation. The screen behind the auctioneer flashed new totals each time a donation was registered.
It took a moment for Sonya to understand that thousands of dollars were being donated by the people around her so that she could make the trip—and when she realized that the total had reached $29,000, she broke down in tears. She had no idea that strangers could be so kind and generous in supporting an opportunity that her family could never even think about paying for.
Through her involvement in Special Olympics Indiana, Sonya’s life has been changed for the better. Like countless athletes before her, she has experienced firsthand the transformative power of sports. But she’s also discovered opportunities off the playing field she never thought possible.
Sports are the mechanism by which Special Olympics reaches people like Sonya, but personal growth, teamwork, social inclusion, and mutual respect are the means by which we are all changed for the better.
And it turns out that Sonya’s elementary school teacher was almost right. She did go on to work at a local Wal-Mart, but not as a greeter. Instead, she became one of their best employees at stocking shelves and assisting customers. And she’s not done yet.
After she conquers Seattle, Sonya will come home ready to take on a lifetime of opportunities. She’ll continue to make her friends and family proud, whether she’s winning medals or achieving her dreams in other areas of her life.
And that is what Special Olympics is really about.