It was my love for football that first led me to Special Olympics Nippon, and started me on this life-changing journey. I volunteered to be a unified partner a few years ago through my school, Ichimura High School.
I did not have a clue what it would be like playing football on the same team with athletes with intellectual disabilities.
In the beginning, I was frustrated that the team did not perform according to my expectations. We had poor rapport and trying to understand one another was laborious and exhausting. It was frustrating that even simple moves like passing the ball were a challenge for us. It sometimes upset me to see how disorganized we were. Every time after practice, I would try to find out what I was doing wrong, but I found it difficult to discuss the issues openly with the team.
It took time, but with the patient and professional guidance of the coaches from Special Olympics Nippon Aichi, we started to come together as a team. We spent months training together and eventually came in third in a national-level football tournament.
During that tournament, I was particularly moved by the friendship and camaraderie displayed by the members of the top two teams. They had strong teamwork and seemed to have a deep, unspoken bond with one another.
Whenever someone made a mistake during a game, there was no finger-pointing, judgment or blame. Instead, they would help and encourage each other. It was a truly inclusive environment where every member of the team was valued and celebrated for their contribution, regardless of their skill level.
I was inspired and determined to build the same level of trust and friendship within my team. I mustered the courage to discuss openly with my teammates our strengths and weaknesses. I asked them personal questions which helped me understand them better. With time, we became not just teammates, but friends.
Our rapport and communication improved tremendously. High-fives came naturally. I also learnt through my interactions with my team-mates that the most important thing was not the final score of the game, but our time together.
The following year, we took part in our second national football tournament and took the silver medal. Honestly, it really didn’t matter to me whether or not we had won. I was just glad to have been able to share the experience and celebrate with my friends.
Recently, I became the team’s goalkeeper. The keeper is a unique position that enables me to observe the whole team. It is gratifying to see how we have all improved in our football skills. There is also a much stronger understanding and communication within the squad.
It has been an amazing personal journey of growth for me, making new friends and maturing as an individual. I used to get angry with my teammates for not being able to catch up. I now realize that people will shine and show you what they are truly capable of when you leave your personal prejudices and judgments behind.
Everyone – with or without disabilities – has their own unique path to achieving their goals. We should not be imposing our standards on others. I’ve always loved football, but now I enjoy it even more because of this wonderful team that I’ve grown to respect, trust and love.