“I wasn’t good enough, but look now, I’m holding the gold medal” – The story of Special Olympics GB athlete Liam Lister and his footballing dream.
A story relatable to so many Special Olympics GB athletes, yet a journey unique to an athlete who was shunned before he was even given an opportunity to be included. Liam Lister, 25, is a footballer from Sunderland and plays for Special Olympics GB associate club Beamish Dynamos in the north-east. An avid Sunderland supporter who plays in the heart of midfield, Liam is a very accomplished footballer, winning gold medals at the Special Olympics GB National Summer Games in Sheffield 2017, the Anniversary Games in Stirling 2018 and most incredibly, the Special Olympics World Summer Games in Abu Dhabi 2019.
To celebrate the UEFA European Championships taking place this month, there’s no better time to showcase the overall determination, passion and commitment Liam has shown to sport and to his own development journey.
When speaking to Liam and his supportive family, winning gold medals at major tournaments and playing across the world wouldn’t have even been a passing thought many years ago. In fact, at an early age Liam was even told that he would never be able to play football because he simply wasn’t good enough. Naturally, this upset Liam who explains: “Football was something I enjoyed doing and for someone to take that away from me was upsetting.”
A common thread between a lot of Special Olympics athletes is that of premature judgement before they have even had a chance to prove themselves. Determined as ever, Liam was introduced to Beamish Dynamos and their long serving coach Bobby Coltman who gave Liam his first taste of team football and has been influential in Liam’s success. Reflecting on his first experience, Liam says: “It was amazing because I was told it was something I would never do, and it’s so good to play football.”
Liam went on to say: “it’s about teamwork, always working as a team and meeting new friends.”
Fast forward a few years and Liam has accomplished more than his dreams could ever have allowed him to imagine. Winning medals, travelling across the world to play the sport he loves with his friends all stand out as lifelong highlights. However, what also stands out is Liam’s humbleness and appreciation. In fact, Liam says of his worldly experiences: “I was really grateful because most people don’t get that opportunity. People with special needs don’t get that opportunity.”
As well as being supported by his coaches, Liam has a very strong family support system who have been with Liam throughout his entire journey. On finding out that Liam had been selected for the World Games team, Liam’s sister Donna explained: “It was unbelievable! There were tears of joy and then we went into action-mode to raise the funds.”
Speaking of his World Games experience, Liam’s parents who travelled to Abu Dhabi to support him, sum up their experience of Liam’s determination: “Anything is possible and that’s where the confidence has come from. He can say, I couldn’t even play on a school football team, I wasn’t good enough. But look now, I’m holding the gold medal. He’s got bragging rights.”
All of Liam’s experiences over the years are testament to his wonderful attitude and his desire to be better. This doesn’t just remain on the pitch. It also extends off the field of play too. Since returning from the World Games, Liam is a much more confident and mature individual and has taken massive strides within his local community to truly making an impact.
For the last few years Liam has spent large parts of his weeks volunteering as an Ambassador for the Fans Museum in Sunderland, a popular museum dedicated to football memorabilia from around the world. As an Ambassador, Liam takes on many responsibilities including being a tour guide and most notably, leading events to support individuals with Alzheimer’s and Dementia at the local hospital through football memorabilia. The skills Liam has developed through his Special Olympics journey, such as confidence, have enabled him to have a true impact on his community, as he says: “Their faces light up… it’s really good to hear the stories and it just lights everybody up.”
Not only does Liam volunteer at the museum, he also is in possession of the FA Level 1 Football Coaching Award which he intends to use to inspire the next generation of footballers and athletes with intellectual disabilities. Liam explains: “I want to give people the opportunities to experience what I have… it is important because there are not enough opportunities for people with special needs and I feel that I can help.”
On top of this, Liam has also been in to visit his previous school to share his Special Olympics experience, which is something that Liam never thought he would be able to do: “Not without Special Olympics I wouldn’t have been able to do that especially because it has given me the confidence.”
For an athlete like Liam who was denied opportunities, he has defied the odds and proven not only what a successful athlete he is, but what an incredible human being he is too. This is testament to Liam’s tenacious attitude and commitment, but to Liam’s family, this is also testament to Special Olympics GB and the importance Special Olympics has played in their lives. Liam’s sister sums this up: “Special Olympics for Liam has showed, not just Liam, but everybody, that you don’t have to just train, you can train to be somebody, you can train to aspire to be the best you can be.”
And to those reading this, Liam has one message: “Never give up and don’t let your disability get you behind. Just enjoy doing what you like doing, go out and enjoy!”
Whatever comes next for Liam, we are certain that he will continue to be a success and an inspiration for all those young and old who have ever been given a reason as to why they can’t do something.
Throughout the Euro’s this month, try to remember that anyone can defy the odds, and anything is possible with the correct amount of determination and support.
The feeling of acceptance and inclusion genuinely does transforms lives. And more needs to be done. Special Olympics GB is perfectly positioned to be able to do this, but we can’t do this alone. If you’d like to make a donation please click HERE or if you’d like to become involved in some way please click HERE.
Thank you, Liam, for sharing your story.