Author: Brian Hinrichs, Emily’s Father
Our daughter, Emily Hinrichs, is a 22 year old Special Olympics’ athlete who became involved with Special Olympics six years ago, at the age of 16. We would like to convey some of the experiences and the life-changing impact that Special Olympics Louisiana has had on her life and the life of our family in ways we never knew were possible.
Emily’s life challenges started at age 2 while she was still completely non-verbal, diagnosed with strabismus and astigmatism, underwent eye surgery to save her sight in both eyes and expected to wear corrective eyeglasses indefinitely. Initial attempts to verbalize began right after starting to wear eyeglasses. Before gaining the ability to communicate interactively, she started singing along with songs, and with years of speech therapy her articulation and verbalization progressed. The Adaptive Physical Ed program slowly improved physical abilities.
While growing up, Emily did not have siblings or other neighborhood friends with which to play, and completing daily homework consumed much of each evening. With our focus in school on academics, speech therapy, and physical education, over the years our concern slowly grew about the need to network with other parents and the lack of opportunities for Emily to develop essential social skills, which would serve to enhance interactive communication skills.
During Emily’s middle school years is when we first learned about Special Olympics Louisiana activities and the life-enhancing opportunities it provides. Through Special Olympics Louisiana, we started discovering one door after another opening to a world of opportunities, experiences, and a continually expanding network of people and resources that would positively impact our family and the life of our daughter Emily.
After becoming involved with Special Olympics Louisiana at the age of 16, Emily learned the life-saving skill of swimming, but had to swim with impaired vision. At age 17, she underwent dual surgical procedures in a single operation on both eyes to permanently and irreversibly modify her eyes and successfully correct her vision, thereby eliminating the need to wear eyeglasses any longer. At age 20, she excelled at swimming to such a degree that she earned a coveted spot on Team Louisiana at the Special Olympics 2014 USA Games held in Princeton, NJ where she shared the unforgettable experience of seeing the Status of Liberty with all her teammates and new friends.. In the six years that Emily and our family have been involved with Special Olympics Louisiana, Emily has shown a tremendous increase in her strength, stamina, and abilities, earning numerous gold medals in all her various sports. She now excels in eight different sports (aquatics, basketball, bowling, cycling, soccer, softball, tennis, track & field) with additional sports slated to be pursued. Last year, Emily added competitive cycling to her list of sports accomplished in preparation of combining swimming, cycling, and running to then pursue her next sport, triathlon. She hoped to become the first athlete in Louisiana to start the sport of triathlon for Special Olympics Louisiana, but those plans were suddenly interrupted and put on hold.
During the usual medical checkup last year, which is a Special Olympics requirement every three years for an athlete to compete in Special Olympics’ events, a heart murmur was suspected where no previous doctor had ever before detected a murmur. This led to several tests, discovery, and open heart surgery to repair a congenital heart defect (ASD) that no one knew she had since birth as she never showed any expected typical symptoms. If Special Olympics had not required this medical checkup every three years, it is possible that this heart defect might have otherwise never been detected until any one of several irreversible, negative and possibly life-threatening health impacts could have eventually resulted. Her surgery was scheduled many months in advance around Special Olympic events so that she would not miss any Special Olympics Louisiana events, so two days after winning 4 gold medals in swimming at Special Olympics Louisiana State Fall Classic in October of 2016, she underwent surgery.
The doctor’s orders post-surgery were to cease all sports activities and limit her exertion to only walking for a few months to allow time to properly heal. After years of learning nine sports and working out daily, it was a sudden lifestyle change for Emily. She followed doctor’s orders starting with baby steps around CICU three days after surgery, then around the hospital the next day, and within a week after surgery she was home taking daily walks in the mall, slowly increasing the distance and cadence, soon measuring walks by miles.
By keeping a positive state of mind, believing that when a door is closed a window is opened, and a challenge is an opportunity for an achievement, Emily’s participation in Special Olympics Louisiana resulted in other opportunities arising to continue expanding her horizon while away from all sports during recovery, such as leveraging her ability to sing.
Through the University of New Orleans ’ interactions with Special Olympics Louisiana, UNO became aware of a video recording of Emily singing the national anthem last year at a pageant and a fashion show. UNO invited her to a live audition whenever she felt she had recovered enough from recent surgery. She passed the audition and performed the national anthem to the audience in the Lakefront Area at a UNO basketball game. That performance led to the opportunity to be invited by Special Olympics Louisiana and the NBA to sing the national anthem at the Special Olympics’ NBA Unified Basketball Games in the Superdome in February of 2017 during NBA All-Star week with NBA Hall of Famers.
She also started expanding her participation in pageants, which she started participating in the prior year to improve her skills to present one’s self in public and expand her socialization and communication skills. Taking the next logical step from doctor’s orders to walk, she prepared herself aerobically to return to sports by fulfilling a dream she held since the age of 6, to march in Mardi Gras parades as a member of a dance team.
Since adding those recent new activities during her recovery period, Emily returned to all her usual Special Olympics’ sports with a medical release obtained three months after open heart surgery, just in time to prepare to participate in the very next three Special Olympics Louisiana state events, basketball in March, cycling in April, and track & field in May. We attribute Emily’s quick recovery to Special Olympics Louisiana having helped her become so physically fit from years of physical conditioning, as well as the over health educational information that Special Olympics Louisiana provides through their Healthy Athletes Program.
All these life changing experiences mentioned are a result of becoming involved with Special Olympics since age 16. During those years she has made a multitude of friends through involvement in Special Olympics. The goal of developing socialization skills and increased interactive communicative skills, which we could not figure out how to address in Emily’s early school years, has been addressed by participation in Special Olympics. We could never fit into a letter, all the positive experiences gained from Special Olympics, but we must share more.
Just this year, Emily was thrilled and honored to be awarded “The Outstanding Female Special Olympics Athlete of The Year for 2016”, while also being inducted into Special Olympics Louisiana’s Athlete Leadership Council. In this role, Emily makes appearances around Southeast Louisiana on behalf of Special Olympics. She loves experiencing the many opportunities Special Olympics Louisiana offers to continue to expand one’s horizons and personal growth by learning new things, taking on new responsibilities, meeting new people and making new friends.
Beyond the aspects of health, physical fitness, and the mental skills to learn rules, regulations and strategies required in different sports, we value the opportunities that Special Olympics Louisiana offers for continued personal growth in other areas, such as; greater self-confidence, self-reliance, independence, communication, socialization, teamwork and leadership. We are continually learning about various disabilities from other’s experiences.
Emily’s personal motto is, “Never Give Up”. Her story is but one athlete’s story to serve as an example of what we have observed of the many admirable qualities, such as; cooperation, kindness, courage to accept challenges, a desire to reach for higher goals, determination to achieve through dedication and persistence, which are displayed by all Special Olympics athletes. We are so thankful to Special Olympics Louisiana for the world of opportunities it provides, and the friendships that are made from the wonderful people it brings together. This sums up how Special Olympics Louisiana has personally impacted our family and our daughter, Emily.