Champions of Dignity
They’ve already authored many success stories in their lives, so it’s hardly surprising that Patrick Gulbranson of Iowa, Chris Dooley of Maryland and Catherine Partlow of Ontario rose to the occasion at the Special Olympics World Games in Los Angeles.
Representing the United States last July 25-Aug. 2, Gulbranson netted three top-six performances in bowling, and Dooley claimed a third and a fourth place in kayaking. For her part, Partlow took home three gold medals in track and field for Team Canada.
These finishes were the latest in a series of personal achievements related to Special Olympics, which provides athletic and social opportunities for youth and adults with intellectual disabilities.
“It gives me courage, and I can show other athletes how I perform and inspire them,” said Partlow, 32, reflecting on her experience as a Special Olympics athlete.
Special Olympics has benefitted from major financial and volunteer support from the Knights of Columbus throughout its nearly 50-year history. This year, the Knights covered the costs of every athlete from the United States and Canada — more than 400 total — who participated in the World Games.
“Our support exemplifies our commitment to the dignity of every person, our dedication to assisting with our neighbors’ needs whatever they may be, and our deep appreciation for the great work done by Special Olympics,” Supreme Knight Carl A. Anderson said when announcing the Order’s $1.4 million pledge in 2014, at which time the Knights of Columbus was named a “Founding Champion of the World Games.”
A SEA OF SUPPORT
Deputy Supreme Knight Logan T. Ludwig led a delegation of K of C representatives and volunteers to this year’s Special Olympics World Games, beginning with the Opening Ceremony at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.
Over the next week, more than 6,500 Special Olympics athletes from 165 countries competed in 25 sports at the World Games. The second largest sporting event in the world after the Olympic Games, it drew more than 30,000 volunteers, 500,000 spectators and millions of television viewers. Taking place every two years, it was the first time the international event was held in North America since 2009.
The Knights’ support of Special Olympics extends back to 1968, when the Order helped Eunice Kennedy Shriver and her husband, Sargent, a long-time Knight, host the first international Special Olympics Summer Games in Chicago.
Since that time, the Order has raised and donated more than $600 million to programs for people with intellectual and physical disabilities. Their efforts are reflected at the council level by numerous fundraising events for Special Olympics, which uses sports to foster a greater sense of dignity and inclusion.
“This vision fits perfectly with what the Knights of Columbus stands for,” Deputy Supreme Knight Ludwig said. “As a creation of God, each human life has a special value, and as a charitable and family organization, we respect life in all of its stages — from the unborn to the end of life and everywhere in between.”
Mark Tisl, who is a fellow member of Stuart (Iowa) Council 1961 with Patrick Gulbranson, noted that, with the help of two other Knights they collected more than $425 in a mere 90 minutes during their council’s annual “Tootsie Roll” drive this year.
“When the people asked us what we were collecting for, we told them that the Knights are a big supporter of Special Olympics and helping the underprivileged,” Tisl said.
Gulbranson, who was born with Down syndrome and is now 28, said that participation in both the Knights and Special Olympics has given him a stronger sense of identity.
“I can be who I want to be,” he said.
Gary Harms, president and CEO of Special Olympics Iowa, befriended Gulbranson during this year’s World Games. A member of St. Francis Council 12422 in West Des Moines, Harms called the Knights’ link with Gulbranson “a great example of the inclusion and fellowship that is part of our brotherhood.”
When Special Olympics athletes like Gulbranson are given opportunities, Harms added, “they simply blossom and excel.”
Last year, Gulbranson was even invited to join Tisl’s bowling team.
“He fits right in with the rest of the group,” Tisl said.
In addition to financial assistance, Knights actively staff Special Olympics events as volunteers. One such volunteer is Jim Jennings, a fellow member with Chris Dooley of Regina Coeli Council 2274 in Easton, Md.
Jennings noted that Special Olympics athletes are always cheered on “no matter whether they finish first or last,” adding that brother Knights in their council readily support Dooley.
Dooley, 32, said he cherishes the camaraderie he enjoys among his brother Knights, fellow athletes and supporters.
“You make a lot of friends,” he said.
Dooley’s mother, Peggy, a longtime special education teacher who adopted him when he was 7 years old, is especially grateful for the support of her son’s council.
“They really, really care about Chris,” she said. “I’m always thanking them for being patient with him. And they’ll say back to me, ‘No, we want to thank you.’”
LIVING LIFE TO THE FULL
Glenn MacDonell, president and CEO of Special Olympics Ontario and a member of St. Patrick’s Council 12782 in Mississauga, observed that the Knights of Columbus enjoyed considerable positive exposure with the World Games, adding that the partnership between the organizations is “a perfect fit.”
Yet the biggest winners, emphasized MacDonnell, who has known track-and-field star Partlow for many years, are the athletes themselves.
“They deal with the athletic successes and the failures so well,” he said. “Maybe it’s because they’ve already dealt with something much more difficult.”
Facing steep competition from athletes around the world, Gulbranson, Dooley and Partlow saw their training and practice pay off in their respective events.
In bowling, Gulbranson earned fourth place in team competition, fifth in individual, and sixth in doubles by throwing well over his 124 average, including a 176 game.
“I couldn’t believe it. That had to be the best moment of my life. I felt great,” Gulbranson said.
Dooley was equally thrilled with his bronze medal in the 200-meter kayaking race and fourth place in the 500. “I felt awesome, and proud of myself for accomplishing a lot,” he said.
Dooley, who trains under Jack Brosius, a member of the 1972 U.S. Olympic kayaking team, noted that his sport is very challenging: “You have to be in very good shape. And you have to keep steady or you’ll flip over.”
Whereas Los Angeles marked the first World Games for Gulbranson and Dooley, Partlow was making her fourth appearance after competing in Dublin in 2003, Shanghai in 2007 and Athens in 2011. This year, with first-place wins in the 100- and 200-meter dashes and 1,600-meter relay, she equaled her number of gold medals from previous World Games combined. And she was particularly happy with the relay win.
“It was the best relay we could have put together. I was very proud of everyone on my team,” Partlow said.
Like many Special Olympics athletes, Partlow, Dooley and Gulbranson have participated in multiple Special Olympics sports over the years — that is, when they aren’t busy working or volunteering. In addition, all three serve as global messengers, promoting Special Olympics through various community appearances.
“I like the social atmosphere of [Special Olympics], and it’s given me a great opportunity to travel,” Partlow said.
“It’s been amazing to see her confidence develop and to have the opportunities to broaden her horizons,” said her father, Tom Partlow, a member of Msgr. Gerard Breen Council 8309 in Whitby, Ontario.
He added that Catherine is a natural in her public-relations role. “She’s definitely at home in front of a microphone.”
Peggy Dooley said that she has taken Chris to almost every available Special Olympics event and venue. “It’s just opened up a whole new world to him,” she said with pride, adding, “He’s gained a lot of friends, and I have, too.”
John Gulbranson, Patrick’s father and a member of Council 1961, reflected similarly on the impact that Special Olympics has had on his son’s life.
“The inclusion and the self-esteem that come from Special Olympics have played a huge part in his development,” he said. “He wouldn’t be anywhere near where he is without it.”
Through all their trials and triumphs, the athletes ultimately cast a spotlight on the beauty and dignity of human life.
“They inspire and show us all what is really important in life, no matter what the challenge,” said Deputy Supreme Knight Ludwig. “What I always admire about them is that these athletes don’t ask to be treated special — they just want a chance.”
MIKE LATONA, a staff writer for the Catholic Courier in the Diocese of Rochester.