24th April 2019
14th March 2019 was an extraordinary day. A day which contained emotions I have not felt before in any job I’ve ever had. It was a day which brought together so much for me on a personal and professional level and an evening that I thought I was going to burst with pride. I had the unbelievable honour of leading out Team SOGB (Special Olympics Great Britain) with Lord Coe, at the Opening Ceremony of the World Summer Games in Abu Dhabi. It was without a shadow of a doubt, the greatest moment of my career to date.
I started this incredible role as CEO of Special Olympics GB in August 2018, and 9 months later I am walking out shoulder to shoulder with a team of incredible athletes, volunteers, coaches and supporters on a global stage. It was the most surreal moment of my life…..walking out into an incredible arena in front of over 55,000 spectators, 7,500 athletes from across the globe & nearly 20,000 volunteers….and not forgetting the worlds’ media. A sea of positivity, of pride and of immense joy.
As I am sure is the same for a great many people, I have spent a long time trying to work out my purpose in life. I made a big decision to leave a stable career over ten years ago…… and many of my struggles since then have been well documented (& there is another chapter to share on that since my last update in 2015!!......and the book is still on the table to write/complete). I’ve tried out various roles and various sectors with varied results. As the wonderful Brene Brown talks about, I had the courage to dare greatly, I was vulnerable, I failed, I succeeded, but mostly I learned so much about myself and what makes me tick. Then this job presented itself……. And the rest, they say, is history…. (or is it…… wait for my next blog for the full version of what happened – nothing has ever been entirely straightforward in my world!).
In my second week on the job, I got to travel up to Stirling, Scotland for the Anniversary Games. I had to stand up on a stage, in front of thousands of athletes, volunteers, families and corporate partners & supporters, to introduce myself. A terrifying moment for someone who is not a fan of the limelight (although when I do mention to people that I am actually quite shy, they do tend to fall over laughing). After the speeches, I went up to the VIP lounge with our Chairman, board members and partners. I had some nice chats, then I turned and said to the Chairman that I hope he didn’t mind, but I wanted to go down to the pitch and meet the athletes and volunteers. If I’m honest, it looked like a whole heap of fun and I wanted to experience the opening ceremony from the perspective of the athlete. My life changed from that moment, and I realised there and then, that I was in absolutely the right place. This is where I was meant to be. I had so much fun meeting the athletes……smiles, laughter, fun, dance offs, selfies….. It was an absolute joy and the best introduction to the world of Special Olympics.
Nine months later, I know the names of many of our athletes, many have shown great courage and bravery in sharing their stories, and all are transforming their lives through the power of sport. I’ve met families, had incredible conversations with athletes, watched athletes light up in tv news studios & in front of audiences and tv cameras (we’ve had more media coverage than ever before in the lead up to the World Games) and worked hard to strengthen the core foundation of our charity (still a work in progress), create a success model and spread the word of our incredible work and our more incredible athletes.
I’m not going to lie and say it’s a completely selfless choice of career. I get SO much more from it. I get the biggest buzz when the athletes know who I am, call my name, or shout ‘hey boss’ (which seems to be the favoured greeting for some of our athletes!). I understand that I am in the most privileged position and the laughter, joy and pride I feel, has far exceeded what I’ve felt before (& I have done some incredible roles over my career). I feel so blessed and grateful to have landed in what I consider to be the perfect role for me. It feels like my whole career has done a full circle. My early career was in disability sport and 20 something (ahem…) years later, I now have the honour of leading this very special movement in Great Britain. I feel like the luckiest girl ever.
So back to that evening of 14th March 2019: When I got the email which asked if I would like to walk out with the delegation, I literally jumped for joy! What an honour! I was with Lord Coe, Patrick Mooney (Ambassador for the UK in the UAE) & Becky Anderson (CNN), in the guest holding area. We were being lined up in alphabetical order to join our delegations in a very organised system. We were given the instructions of what we had to do…. And were told that once we had led the team in, we had to move into the stands to sit in the Honoured Guests area whilst all the athletes were seated in readiness for the Opening Ceremony shenanigans to begin. I was absolutely buzzing and the atmosphere was electric. Lord Coe looked on me with great amusement (or was it bemusement?!). I do not have the ability to act all cool and ‘CEO-like’ (what does that even mean anyway?) and cannot hide my excitement or joy. There was lots of banter and stories told, and I mentioned to Lord Coe that he would have been well used to doing this in his career, both as an athlete and a sporting leader, but I was beyond excitement! Mainly because I knew what it meant for the athletes and the hundreds of their family members who were sat in the stands, and the thousands back home watching the tv, hoping for a glimpse of someone they know.
When it was our turn, the athletes, coaches and management team were in very high spirits. There was a sea of smiles and a definite roar of laughter and excitement, and the team were looking super smart in their red Team SOGB kit. Walking in to the stadium was a bit of a blur. It’s hard to take in everything as you enter the stadium and hear the noise of the crowd, the music and the cheers….. then you are hit by the cameras, the lights and this magnificent stadium. I kept turning around to watch the faces of the athletes……wondering what on earth must be going through their minds. It was blowing my mind and I wasn’t even competing.
When we got around to the other side of the stadium, the Games’ volunteers were trying to get us off the pitch and into the stand….. I wasn’t ready to go to the stands yet…. I wanted to see every last athlete and volunteer wearing a GB tracksuit. The volunteers were trying to persuade me to get off, but instead, I was high-5ing, hugging, waving with the team….. especially delighted when those that spotted me ran over to hug me….. I felt my heart would burst. As the last athlete went past, I was ushered off to my seat.
I sat for a little while and then changed into my GB polo shirt. I decided I wanted to try and get a little closer to the athletes, so I made my way around the stadium to walk as close as I could to our team. It wasn’t close enough, but I managed to chat to some of the team. I leant on a fence, and realised it was a gate, which was unlocked. Dare I?? Of course!! My mantra is to ask for forgiveness rather than permission, so I looked around to see if anyone was watching and I squeezed myself through the gap – then cantered over to the team, expecting to be rugby tackled by security at any point! Thankfully I went unnoticed and had such a wonderful time laughing and dancing with the team. Lots of photos and videos taken and memories made. I found my way back to the seats to retrieve my bag and watch the final spectacular fireworks display. I was in danger of having lots of ‘out of body’ experiences and had to pinch myself to realise that this was part of my job and I genuinely am really lucky to be part of a global movement which provides such great joy and life changing transformations for millions of people across the world living with an intellectual disability. What a humbling experience and one that will live with me for the rest of my days.
……. And as an additional aside, I also broke into the athlete area for the closing ceremony – this time it took a lot more negotiating skills….. something I’d developed further throughout the week of competition….. when I hit a barrier or someone told me I couldn’t access an area, I just found a way to circumnavigate, whether that was changing my top, turning around my accreditation, or wearing a lurid green media bib! I believe barriers and boundaries are there to be tested and stretched and navigated around. If you find a block or blocker, just step back and find a different way. If it is for the greater good and you know it will make a difference to one person or millions of people, then break down those barriers, whether they are perceived or are physical!
Why not join us at the first ever global Special Olympics Unified Mile, taking place in London on 26th May 2019. A real family occasion where you can meet and run alongside some of our incredible athletes and a sprinkling of some famous names too. More details here!
Our athletes sell the benefits of Special Olympics better than anyone else can. Most tell their stories of what life was like before Special Olympics and how it has changed since getting involved in our work. Some stories will break your heart, but their honesty is something I really value about our athletes, and their complete unbridled joy and enthusiasm is infectious. For me, it is with a humble heart and immense pride and sense of great privilege, that I work alongside our athletes to lead this great movement in GB. Are you in?! Will you ‘choose to include’?
Thanks for reading!
Michelle Carney, CEO with the best job in sport in GB!