Bendigo resident Damien Haggarty celebrates the 50th anniversary of International Special Olympics

On Sunday, February 25, Bendigo resident Damien Haggarty had the privilege to attend a garden party at Government House in Canberra to celebrate the 50th Anniversary of International Special Olympics. His niece, Tania Hutchinson, shares his story. 

Damien was one of the 100 athletes from all over Australia who were accepted to attend along with their carers and supporters.

Special Olympics is centered around athletes with intellectual disabilities, distinct from Paralympics which focuses on athletes with physical disabilities.

Starting with only a couple of hundred athletes in just two countries, Special Olympics has now grown to have over 4 million athletes in 172 countries.

After developing brain damage from open heart surgery when he was 1 year old, Damien, now 47, has been involved with Special Olympics for over 30 years.

Dr. Timothy Shriver, the guest of honour, attended the event on a trip from America ahead of the Special Olympics Australia National Games being held in Adelaide in April later this year.

Tim’s mother Eunice (Kennedy) Shriver, sister of the American President John F Kennedy, started Special Olympics in America in 1962.  

Tim spoke inspiringly to the athletes saying, “We must choose to include”, encouraging all the guests to chant along with him.

The event showcased the diversity and commitment of the Special Olympics community in Australia, reflecting the oath “Let me win. But if I do not win, let me be brave in the attempt”.

Also in attendance were the Governor of Victoria, the Hon. Linda Dessau, and the Minister for Sport, Senator the Hon. Bridget McKenzie.  

Damien had the opportunity to meet Tim Shriver and Corene Strauss, the CEO of Special Olympics Australia.

I was lucky enough to attend the event with my Uncle Damien and my grandmother.

We must choose to include

Dr. Timothy Shriver

It is inspiring to see what Damien and the disability community have achieved and I am constantly amazed at all the stories I’ve heard and the achievements I have witnessed while growing up around people with a disability.

As well as this event, Damien has had the opportunity to light the torch at the 2011 Special Olympics Australia National Games, has played cricket on the MCG, met numerous celebrities, and won countless medals at games all over Victoria in both ten-pin bowling and cricket.

The awe-inspiring part of all of this is that 45 years ago, Damien’s mother was told by professionals to put him in an institution and forget him. Now, Damien has accomplished more in his lifetime than most people could ever hope to.

I look at the people around me and I don’t see disabilities, I see people with immense talents and more acceptance than you could ever imagine.

The celebration of 50 years of Special Olympics was not only a commemoration of inclusion in sport but also in the wider community, that in all areas, whether it be healthcare, education or social interaction, “We must choose to include”.

Inclusion should not only mean accepting, but also valuing and recognizing people with a disability for the amazing gifts and stories they have to share and Damien’s story is only one amongst thousands.