Stick with me long enough to read this story and think about the lessons that might apply to you or to your business. I promise I will get you there, but this is a story I need to tell. It’s a story about challenges, about perseverance, about leadership and about success. And I will admit to you that it is a story that made me pretty emotional when I heard it firsthand. As my son told me once when he was 6 or 7 years old, “I wasn’t crying. My eyes were just sweating.”
Abby is the starting point guard for the Carmel (Indiana) High School girls’ basketball team. She’s a winner. She is a terrific athlete and a great student. She has a great group of friends and, although a little shy, has always been socially comfortable and part of the “in” crowd, one of the cool kids. She has a very bright future ahead of her. Everything comes easy to Abby.
A few miles away at Noblesville (Indiana) High School, a boy named Mitch walks through the hallways with his head down, avoiding contact with others. Mitch has an intellectual disability. Mitch doesn’t have the same outlook on life as Abby. How could he? School can be a challenge and usually people are telling him what he cannot accomplish rather than what he can; they talk about his disabilities rather than his abilities.
Abby and Mitch had never crossed paths. Didn’t know each other and were certainly not destined to run in the same circles. Then came one of those universe-aligning incidents that forever changes the course of the world. Sounds farfetched? Seems like exaggeration? You might think so, but you would be dead wrong. Here’s what happened…
Special Olympics Indiana formed a partnership with the Indiana High School Athletics Association they named Champions Together. The idea was to engage in unified athletics at the high school level. Unified athletics refer to events in which athletes with intellectual disabilities compete as a team with athletes without those disabilities. The plan was to start small and focus on track events. Like most things, the best laid plans…
This year 197 Indiana high schools were involved in some way with Champions Together and 13 schools offered competition in unified track. 13! No small beginning after all. Think about that…Special Olympics athletes participating on teams with the “cool” kids, with the “jocks.” Noblesville High School awarded varsity letters to those competing on their unified team. How did it happen? It happened because Abby and other teenagers saw the need to change. They knew the challenge was huge but that drove them harder to succeed. They met the challenge head on and made things happen.
Mitch and Abby met through Champions Together and, however unlikely, are now best friends. Constantly in digital communication or running together, they have become a team, relying on each other for friendship, support and challenge. Here is a quote from Abby that I absolutely love. “I can honestly say Mitch is one of the closest friends I have ever had, but Mitch is not my ‘friend with an intellectual disability,’ he's just my friend.”
Mitch now walks the hallways of NHS with his head held high, proudly wearing his letter jacket complete with his well-deserved “N.” Mitch, a letterman. Mitch quickly engages others during passing periods and gets “high fives” constantly. And, Mitch and Abby went to the NHS homecoming dance together.
I just watched Mitch stand up in front of a crowd and put on his letter jacket. The look on his face was something I will never forget. Defiant. Victorious. Challenging. Happy.
This simple act of donning a letter jacket symbolizes massive change in our world. This is societal change that will forever alter the look and feel of high school athletics. I know, I know…these are big statements. But just stand back and watch.
Think about the challenges that face Mitch every day of his life. Yet he tackles them directly and beats them. I promise you he celebrates those victories with a quick text to Abby. We as business people must learn from Mitch.
Here are just a few lessons that hit me from this story…
- When something needs changed, change it. Don’t shy away or stick to the status quo or rationalize it away. Change it.
- Be a leader. Be a servant leader.
- Team up with those who compliment your strengths and weaknesses. We all have them.
- Celebrate successes. Mitch and Abby do.
- Persevere. Battle. Win.
As you encounter barriers in your business, consider these lessons. Sure we all have our challenges, but let’s keep them in perspective. I can’t imagine any challenge that is unbeatable if we all pull together like Mitch and Abby, if we all act like Champions Together.