Patriotism on Display: Special Olympics Winter Games

Unjaneé Wells, Miss Michigan Teen USA 2016 sings the National Anthem at Winter Games

The Special Olympics movement has a unique ability to capture our emotions.  I have had the privilege of being a volunteer with Special Olympics Michigan for the past seven years, the last five as a member of the Games Committee of both the State Summer and State Winter Games.  I donate my time as the event photographer for both.

Photographing such an event grants you a special connection to the athletes, coaches, volunteers and fans.  You see the heart of the Special Olympics movement – athletes competing for the love of sport and comradery of team.  You see a place where inclusion is bigger that disability.  You also see something striking: everyone here is largely the same. The volunteer coaching staff, event personnel, and athletes with a sole focus on the games.  You see the determination of a sprinter pushing to the tape.  You see the despair from an alpine skier crashing to the snow having missed a gate.

Through my years of capturing Special Olympics athletes and volunteers I’ve made wonderful memories.  Striking images that capture strength, speed, grace, joy, defeat and victory.  I’ve treasured seeing these images support the work of the Special Olympics staff who use them to fundraise, adorn event venues, or advertise competitions.  One of my favorite memories was receiving this year’s Special Olympics Michigan holiday card.  Depicted on the front was an image I captured of a snowshoe competitor named Destiny with a text overlay, “Brave Never Quits.”  I don’t know who was more excited, Destiny or me.

When preparing to shoot at a Special Olympics contest, I expect the height of emotion.  However, this year’s Winter Games in Traverse City, MI surprised me.

At the opening ceremony a very talented guest, Unjaneé Wells, Miss Michigan Teen USA 2016, was invited to sing the National Anthem.

Having a talented anthem singer is not unusual.  What caught me by surprise was the wave of feelings that I felt as she belted out the song.  While she sang, she was joined by more than 2,000 Special Olympics Michigan athletes.   I was overcome.

I’ve never been so moved by our nation’s song.  Not Opening Day at Wrigley Field, not being in Yankee Stadium on 9/11 in 2003, not attending a graduation or funeral.

This was special.  It was a reminder that, no matter w our political climate, no matter our president, no matter our differences, there are some things about the United States that are just damn exceptional.

Spending four days in northern Michigan with 2,000 Special Olympics Michigan athletes, athletes who want so badly to win, but no matter the outcome, will always be brave in the attempt, reminded me that although we have work to do, I’m proud to be an American.


Dan Gaken is a student affairs administrator, author, and leadership trainer with 10 years of professional experience, primarily in the field of student leadership development. Dan builds environments where others are able to create something that excites them.

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