Most people have heard of the Special Olympics, but do you know about the Special Olympics World Games? They just took place this past March 14-21 in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. This multi-sport event for athletes with intellectual disabilities is no small gig- check out these numbers:
170+ Countries Represented
3,000 Honored Guests
….making this the largest international sporting and humanitarian event of the year!
And as for Team USA? Team USA was comprised of 320 athletes, 4 of whom were from North Carolina, one who was Erykah.
Erykah Culbertson was one of four athletes selected in North Carolina to travel to Abu Dhabi to compete in the Special Olympics World Games and I got a chance to speak with Erykah’s father and coach, Michael Culbertson to hear first hand about this incredible experience.
Who is Erykah Culbertson? I’m glad you asked.
Erykah is a 21 year old local Charlottean who has been competing in the Special Olympics since 2005. She is an athlete with 144 gold medals from state games to show for it, and now a trip to the Special Olympics World Games under her belt.
Erykah’s journey to the World Games began with a week long training session in Delaware where it would be decided which olympic games she would participate in during her time in Abu Dhabi which ended up being the long jump, 100 meter dash and the 4 x 100 meter relays (all of which she brought home ribbons for- Erykah placed 4th in the relay race and 7th in both the 100-meter dash and the long jump!).
The training sessions in Delaware were not all athletics focused, participants also received cultural training which helped them to better navigate their time in the Middle East, teaching them cultural norms such as how to dress, things you can and cannot do in public, and how to at all times respect the culture they were about to become immersed into. They were provided with books and pamphlets that were specially catered to their needs to help them understand the unique cultural experience ahead of them.
With Delaware training in her rearview, Erykah was off to the big event. Along with the 319 other Team USA athletes, Erykah boarded a plane from JFK Airport in New York and embarked on a once in a lifetime journey.
Upon arrival, the athletes underwent more training sessions, got the opportunity to sight see, and were provided with a place to stay that would allow parents of athletes to be close by while still allowing them to live and stay independently among their peers. Michael Culberston recalls that this was one thing that made this experience really special for his daughter- the sense of community among all of the competing athletes.
He told me about how the athletes would trade jerseys and pins as souveniers and that the social aspect was really an incredible thing to see among the athletes who were all there to compete against one another, enjoying one another’s company and encouraging each other each step of the way. He says it was the true definition of a friendly competition.
Likewise, Michael was able to tell me that from a parent’s perspective, it was one of the most incredible things he has ever been a part of. He said that the locals in Abu Dhabi treated the athletes and their families like absolute royalty, sparing no expenses, from shuttle services to refreshment displays, and making sure they had an incredible experience. He also reminisced about all of the people he got to meet and shared how special it was to be surrounded by parents that all have the same goal: to see their children participate and enjoy themselves.
He also pointed out that this was the first time the World Games had been held in the Middle East and also the highest level of female participation yet, with inclusion being a key theme throughout the entire World Games experience.
Michael told me that the Special Olympics World Games truly felt like the real olympics and that it was an amazingly well organized, secure, and overall fantastic experience for all involved.
From opening ceremonies where each athlete marched in proudly displaying their country’s flag, to closing ceremonies where all 20,000 volunteers were marched in to honor their hard work that made the event possible- the Special Olympics World Games was an event unlike any other.
Now that she is back from Abu Dhabi, Erykah is still running track, playing basketball, horseback riding, cheerleading, golfing, and, well, the list goes on. She is a well rounded, determined, individual for whom the sky is the limit. And in the spare time she has, she is involved with local nonprofit Autism After 18 where she meets lots of new friends, participates in numerous activities,and learns things like how to build a resume and nail a job interview.
Autism After 18 was created to help young adults with autism progress toward independent lives, by giving them opportunities to interact in the community on a social, professional and educational level. Their events are free to all adults with autism and made possible through fundraising and donations. This past November, Autism After 18 participated in #GivingTuesdayCLT to raise awareness of the talents, hopes and dreams of adults with autism and to create a more inclusive and accepting world for all.