Special Olympics British Columbia

SOBC athlete helps celebrate Special Olympics at star-studded White House event

20 August 2014

When Special Olympics BC – Langley athlete and Global Messenger Matthew Williams took centre stage at the White House with fellow Special Olympics athlete leaders and youth activists, he felt honoured to have the genuine attention of the President and First Lady of the United States.

President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama, Honorary Chairs of the 2015 Special Olympics World Summer Games, hosted a dinner at the White House on July 31 that powerfully celebrated the Special Olympics movement and its work for inclusion and unity, and built excitement with just under a year to go until the big World Games in Los Angeles.

“It was great to see how much [President Obama] cared. You could see his words were genuine. For a man so busy with so many things going on around the world, it meant a lot that he took time out of his schedule to speak at this event and take an interest in the people who were speaking. I was really happy to see that,” Williams said.

Williams joined an inspiring group of Special Olympics athletes and youth activation supporters to share their stories with a star-studded audience that included the President and First Lady along with some of the world’s leading social activists, business leaders, entertainers, members of Congress and sport legends, such as Dikembe Mutumbo, Senator Tom Harkin, Stevie Wonder, Andy Roddick, and Brooklyn Decker.

“The fact that so many accomplished, wonderful people are here is a testament to the impact that Special Olympics has had on our nation, and has had on our world,” said President Obama in his remarks at the White House.  “This organization has touched so many lives, and tonight Michelle and I are thrilled that we get a chance to say ‘thank you’ to everyone who has been a part of it.”

Pictured at right: President Obama getting a hug from Tim Harris, former Special Olympics athlete turned restaurant owner famed for the great hugs he dishes out

Watch President Obama’s remarks

More about the event

From Special Olympics International: "The event celebrated the work that Special Olympics, with the support of the Obama administration and others,  has been doing to activate young people to fight inactivity, intolerance, and injustice in their schools and communities. Special Olympics plans to engage youth across the world in a new youth activation campaign to be launched in a few months to create the first truly unified generation – a generation in which young people with and without intellectual disabilities create a future of respect and inclusion for everyone. 

The goal of the campaign will be to mobilize youth to play and ultimately live unified, breaking down the barriers that exclude people with intellectual disabilities."

As Williams puts it, the vision is of people with and without intellectual disabilities “unified in equal opportunities.”

In addition to the inspiring words of the Special Olympics athletes and activists, the evening’s entertainment included a performance by Katy Perry, teaming up with Special Olympics for the first time. Perry, whom Special Olympics Phillipines athlete Brina Kei Maximo called the voice of the Special Olympics “unified generation,” kicked off the night by performing “Roar,” dedicating the song to the entire unified generation, and also sang “Firework” and “This Moment.”

Williams is a member of the Special Olympics International Board of Directors, Chair of the Third Global Athlete Congress, and a Special Olympics Sargent Shriver International Global Messenger. He said he was glad to see so many influential people come together at the White House in support of Special Olympics. Many stars came out to hear from and talk with the true stars of the evening, the Special Olympics athletes.

“There was good representation from Special Olympics athletes. The athletes had a chance to tell their stories and be able to showcase the amazing talents and capabilities they have,” Williams said.

The event aimed both to share the Special Olympics vision of inclusion and unity and build excitement and support for the movement and the upcoming World Games.

“I think we got the message across and we got people talking about it,” Williams said. “With social media and so many things coming up, moving forward with the L.A. World Games, this is definitely going to boost awareness and really promote the Games. We had the people we needed to in the room that will help us get to what we wanted to accomplish for L.A. and with an inclusive generation. That was a big step in the right direction.”

As Williams noted, the event generated much excitement both among attendees and in the social media sphere, attracting 7.7 million impressions for the @SpecialOlympics handle on Twitter.

Williams told the White House audience how he faced seizures, brain surgery, and bullying when he was younger, but powered through with the help of the people who have believed in him. Now he is on his way to becoming a certified personal trainer and aims to help other individuals with intellectual disabilities.

His story struck a chord with audience members such as Jordin Sparks and Jason Derulo, who approached Williams to talk afterward and ask more about his experiences; Williams said he felt honoured these stars took an interest in his life. Williams said he also particularly enjoyed talking with tennis star Andy Roddick and his model-actress wife Brooklyn Decker, who asked about Special Olympics and Williams’ own sports, speaking with him as a sport peer and equal.

And then it was right back into the world of sports for Williams. The day after the White House gala, he flew home and travelled to a three-day speed skating camp in Kelowna with fellow SOBC athlete Paige Norton. An athlete's work is never done!

White House event photos

Associated Press coverage

Reuters coverage

Matthew Williams (second from right) addresses the Special Olympics White House event. Photos courtesy of Special Olympics.

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