Mike Stone had never felt such a mix of nerves and excitement before in his life. He had mustered up the courage to get on the plane and had flown over 500 miles for this. He felt it in the pit of his stomach that this moment would change his life.
As Stone stood outside of the stadium, he peered over at his fellow Greensboro athletes and saw his own feelings reflected on their faces. They were beaming with joy as they held their North Carolina banner, ready to march with 1,000 other athletes with intellectual disabilities from across the country and even Canada.
They marched right into Soldier Field to the sound of applause and cheering. Once the marching was done, Stone thought to himself, “it can’t get much better than this!”
But then he heard words floating through the air.
“In ancient Rome,” Eunice Kennedy Shriver started, “the gladiators went into the arena with these words on their lips: let me win, but if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt. Today, all of you young athletes are in the arena. Many of you will win. But even more important, I know you will be brave and bring credit to your parents and to your country. Let us begin the Olympics!”
At just 12 years old, Stone unknowingly became part of the foundation of the largest movement for and by people with intellectual disabilities. One of six athletes from North Carolina, he had the weight of representing his state on his shoulders and that was not a task he took lightly.
“It was my first time being away from home and it was a little scary thinking about competing in front of so many people,” admitted Stone.
After competing in the 50-yard dash and the softball throw, Stone realized that Kennedy Shriver’s words had been engrained in him. He had pushed himself harder than ever before and he knew that his best was good enough that day. Though he did not win, he had summoned the courage to make the journey to Chicago and compete through his nerves. He had been brave in the attempt.
Once the games were over, Stone and his teammates made their way back to North Carolina. He boarded the plane headed for Greensboro with memories to last a lifetime and a silver medal around his neck. And the rest, as they say, is history.
From that day on, Stone has taken great pride in his role at the very first Special Olympics games, which led to him becoming a leader in the Special Olympics movement in North Carolina.
He soon became one of the inaugural members of the Special Olympics North Carolina Athlete Congress and one of the first Special Olympics NC Global Messengers (then called Athletes for Outreach), who are athletes trained as spokespersons for the organization. Spreading the message of Special Olympics quickly became one of Stone’s passions and he has since given hundreds of speeches about the power of sport.
“My favorite part about Special Olympics is sharing moments and memories with other athletes,” said Stone. “Sharing our experiences between each other has taught me the importance of making a difference for those like me who have intellectual disabilities.”
Just playing the sports wasn’t enough for Stone. He completed his training to be a Special Olympics coach in 1997 and went on to coach basketball, softball and bocce in his local program. Before becoming a coach, he had been an active volunteer in his local program, too. Any task that needed doing, Stone did it with a smile.
“The growth of Special Olympics over the past 50 years amazes me,” said Stone. “I am proud to represent such a large community and I would love to see even more athletes get involved in Special Olympics over the next 50 years!”
With each passing year, Special Olympics also brought countless memories for Stone, who has now a retired US Postal Service worker. From receiving numerous awards and honors, including being named the 1994 Special Olympics NC Athlete of the Year, to being honored with carrying the Special Olympics 25th anniversary flag at the front of the Parade of Athletes during the 25th anniversary celebration, Stone has lived a life he only dreamed of at 12 years old.
The words Eunice Kennedy Shriver spoke that day on Soldier Field are still etched into his memory, reminding him that whatever he does, to do it with courage.