Twenty-nine Special Olympics Thailand athletes and their partners are off to Los Angeles next week to compete in the World Games, which are being held from July 25 to August 2.
The group, which has just completed a training camp at the Thammasat University's Sport Centre in Rangsit, is made up of 27 athletes with an intellectual disability and two unified partners, as the athletes without disabilities are known. They hail from all over Thailand and will be participating in six of the 32 sports offered, namely athletics, badminton, bocce, football, swimming and table tennis.
"I'm very excited and not at all worried about going up against foreign opponents. My serve and smash technique has improved and I'm still working on it," says Jirayu Laoya, a 15-year-old badminton player from the Chiang Mai Home for Boys.
"I'm so excited to go to America this time after missing the previous games in Singapore and Australia. I've honed my skills, especially in terms of throwing a ball as close to the jack as possible and bouncing a ball off the board at the side," says Tanakorn Anuta, a 16-year-old bocce player from Ban Tha Mongkol School in Nan.
Surasak Damchoom, an 18-year-old athlete from Chumphon Punyanukul School who's competing in the athletics category, has plenty of experience, having competed in several countries and winning three medals - gold in the 400-metre race, silver in the 800m and bronze in the 1,500m - at the 11th IWAS World Junior Games in the Netherlands.
"The training camp has helped me improve my time to 2.20 minutes for the 800-metre run. I fully intend to sweep all gold medals in this upcoming World Games," says Surasak, who poses for photos in the same distinctive stance as Jamaican speed-demon Usain Bolt, the 2013 world athletics champion.
The athletes and coaches are flying to LA on Tuesday and will be among the nearly 7,000 athletes and 3,000 coaches representing 170 countries taking part in the opening ceremony, which is being held at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.
The First Lady of the United States, Michelle Obama, is the honorary co-chair of the event, along with President Barack Obama.
Stevie Wonder, Avril Lavigne, OAR, Cody Simpson, Nicole Scherzinger, J Balvin and "Reach Up LA" theme song composer Siedah Garrett will headline the opening ceremony.
The Special Olympics is the world's largest sports organisation for people with intellectual disabilities and was initiated in 1968 by Eunice Kennedy Shriver, sister of US President John F Kennedy.
Special Olympics Thailand started in 1987 under the Foundation for the Welfare of the Mentally Retarded of Thailand and was registered as a sporting association under the Sports Authority of Thailand in 1991.
"The difference between the Paralympics and the Special Olympics is that the Paralympics are for athletes with a range of physical disabilities while the Special Olympics focus on those who have intellectual disabilities or an IQ of under 80. Cerebral palsy sufferers are also among the intellectually disabled. These athletes have fair communication and social adaptation skills. We run an occupational therapy module called a motor adaptation training programme for them," says Rachaniwan Bulakul, national director of Special Olympics Thailand. "People with these kind of disabilities often dare not look at other people's face or eyes, because they always think of themselves as failure. They lack self-confidence. When they play sports though, their self-confidence is back. Sports help them to have social development, to control their emotions and to learn new skills.
"They can become a coach's helper in our Athlete Leadership Programme, which empowers athletes to explore opportunities for greater participation. Take Chanchai Kemkaew; he is one of 12 Special Olympics athletes from several foreign countries selected to serve as an International Global Messenger for the next four years, spreading the message and vision of the movement."
Rachaniwan adds that the most challenging sports, both for the athletes and their coaches, are those that involve working as a team.
"Those athletes have to communicate with others, understand and solve a problem. Even in swimming, we needed to spend a long time training them. For bocce, this year we have a kind of unified bocce that consists of disabled and partner unified athletes who are not disabled. We were very proud last year that our 11 unified footballers qualified for the final round of the Unified Football World Cup," he says.
Coaches play an important role in training these Special Olympics Thailand athletes. Not only do they need to be able to play the sport themselves but also to prove that they are capable of caring for their charges. In Thailand, the coaches are usually from special education schools but can also include volunteers who attend a coaching clinic.
Intellectual disabilities are no barrier to the athletes' feeling such emotions as the thrill of victory or the agony of defeat, but for the most part they are unable to communicate these feelings or put them into words.
"If they feel angry, we will comfort them by understanding the problem. Earlier this week our badminton players were not happy about our judgement on whether a shuttlecock had landed on the lines or not. Jirayu is kind of quiet, as Natthiwut Anusatsananan tends to be moody. But he is able to relax by listening to music," says badminton coach Pharuehat Laesanklang, from Kawila Anukul School in Chiang Mai.
"I don't worry about them as I know they want to practise. They understand what I'm telling them but their disabilities make them slow to respond. Surasak is now very good at passing and receiving the baton at the check mark," says athletics coach Supaporn Srikeat from Kumpawapi School in Udon Thani.
"Bocce is similar to petanque and a good sport for athletes with intellectual disabilities. The hardest technique is bouncing the ball off the boards and throwing the ball close to the jack. Our special athletes will face a problem with the new bocce court, which will probably be covered with artificial turf. That makes it slippery and hard to control their hands and the ball," says bocce coach Patnaree Ponoi, from Chumphon Punyanukul School in Chumphon.
ON THE BALL
- Watch the Special Olympics on ESPN, the official broadcast partner of the World Games.
- For details, check www.SpecialOlympics.org and ESPN.go.com/extra/specialolympics.