It’s almost impossible to overstate the impact the Special Olympics can have on the life of an athlete with an intellectual disability. Just ask Rion Holcombe about the excitement of athletic achievement and the joy of pomp and ceremony. The Spartanburg-based Special Olympic bronze medalist in the 100-meter individual medley swim will tell you.
But first: a definition. The Special Olympics was started in the 1960s by Eunice Kennedy Shriver, who grew up with a beloved sister with an intellectual disability. Shriver understood the challenges faced by children like her sister and wanted to make things better. She opened a summer camp, focusing on athletics and fun and pairing special-needs campers with counselors from area high schools and colleges. She broke down barriers between the groups, showing that special-needs children had much to contribute to the world. By doing so, she launched a movement that would revolutionize the world for people just like Rion Holcombe.
Rion is 28 years old. He has Downs syndrome and a contagious personality. To talk to Rion and his mother, Susan Holcombe, is to be delighted by the stories they tell seamlessly together, starting and finishing each other’s sentences. Their mutual devotion is palpable.
Take the story of how Rion became a swimmer.
“My mom taught me in the bathtub,” said Rion, laughing.
Susan giggled. The real story is slightly different. Rion was 7 years old and prone to wandering off.
“I had to watch him like a hawk,” said Susan.
It was her birthday on an unseasonably warm February day. Rion wanted to swim in the neighbor’s pool, but it wasn’t quite that warm. Susan said no.
Midway through the afternoon, she said, “I’d just gotten into the bathtub, and I was all relaxed, and I heard the front door slam. I thought he was leaving, so I got out of the tub, ready to chase him down. But Rion, what did I find at the bottom of the stairs?”
He laughs too hard to answer.
“I found a naked little boy, shivering.”
Rion had snuck out while the bathwater was running and walked next door.
“I took off my clothes and got in the pool,” he admitted. The neighbor wasn’t home but later found evidence of Rion’s transgression: shorts, underwear and two right shoes.
“Well, I knew right then I had to get him swimming,” Susan related.
They joined their neighborhood pool, and Rion watched the other children swim. People with Downs syndrome are good mimics, and Rion proved that, learning by observing and copying. At age 9, they signed him up for the Special Olympics swim team. He was the only child on the team, swimming against adults.
“But that was OK,” Rion remarked. “I’m pretty tall.”
From there, Rion was off to the races. He’s a natural athlete; when he’s not in the pool you can find him at his local YMCA, working at the front desk or weight-training, taking step classes or spin classes and playing basketball and baseball.
“I’m good,” he noted, prompting Susan to add, “There’s absolutely nothing wrong with this boy’s self-confidence.”
Getting to the Special Olympics requires a little bit of luck.
“You don’t just earn your way into the Special Olympics,” Susan explained. “You have to get a gold medal at a statewide meet, and then you’re entered into a lottery. He’s won lots of gold medals, but it took Rion 18 years to be chosen.”
“I don’t know if people understand how hard these kids work,” she added. “They’re incredible swimmers. They practice year-round. Rion treats it like a job.”
But it’s fun, too. Rion, his parents and his sister and brother-in-law all went to Orlando, Florida, for the Special Olympic games. At the opening ceremony, Sara Bareilles sang, and there was a special video message from Rion’s favorite singer, Luke Combs.
“I was bawling,” Rion admitted.
He swam eight of the nine days in Orlando. His girlfriend – yes, ladies, he’s taken and very much in love – was there, too, and they cheered each other on at all their races. Rion swam a freestyle relay, the 100-meter freestyle and the 100-meter individual medley (butterfly, backstroke, breaststroke and free), for which he earned his bronze medal.
To cap off the experience, Disney World shut down Animal Kingdom one afternoon to everyone except the Special Olympians and their families, and Coca-Cola sponsored all the food so participants and their families could enjoy all the Disney treats for free. The athletes also spent a day at Magic Kingdom.
But for Rion, it was all about the racing.
“I wanted to win for Michael Phelps,” he said.
And standing up on the podium, with his family and girlfriend watching, is an experience this Special Olympics athlete will never forget.
By Leah Rhyne