The Special Olympics exists in every corner of the globe and has supported over five million athletes. Fran Racioppi travels to Minneapolis to sit down with the leaders of the 2022 and the 2026 Special Olympics USA Games, Joe Dzaluk, Christine Sovereign and David Dorn.
The 2022 USA Games in Orlando, through partnership with Jersey Mike’s Subs, set a record and a new standard for financial support to the games. Jersey Mike’s CEO Peter Cancro is an original member of our Jedburgh Team and committed 100% of sales during the Annual Day of Giving to the 2022 Games, this totaled $20 million.
The group covers the history of the Special Olympics, Eunice Kennedy Shriver’s call to action, the Special Olympics place as the leader of inclusion before inclusion was even a term in mainstream society, Jersey Mike’s unprecedented leadership and example in giving, and what to expect for 2026.
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About Christine Sovereign
Christine Sovereign is the CEO of the 2026 Special Olympics USA Games. She is the Senior Office Managing Director for Accenture’s Minneapolis/St. Paul location responsible for bringing innovation to clients across twelve industries and Accenture’s portfolio of businesses, attracting and developing top talent, and strengthening Accenture’s impact on the local community.
Since joining Accenture over 30 years ago, she has built a reputation as a trusted and strategic client advisor. She is an authentic, growth-oriented leader, deeply experienced in driving transformational change and businesses to higher levels of performance. Christine is active on the Board of Advisors at the University of Minnesota – Carlson School of Management and a former member of the Board of Directors for Special Olympics Minnesota.
About Joe Dzaluk
Joe Dzaluk is President and CEO of the 2022 Special Olympics USA Games and was responsible for the planning and execution of the national sports competition that showcased the power and joy of sports and the awe-inspiring abilities of athletes with intellectual differences. The Games were held in Orlando and included over 4,000 athletes and 125,000 spectators from the U.S.A, and the Caribbean. Joe was most recently CFO of AA Metals where he lead the finance, information technology and human resources organizations. Joe spent over three decades with IBM and held numerous senior management positions including General Manager Delivery, Europe Middle East and Africa (EMEA), where he directly oversaw the activities of tens of thousands of employees delivering a full range of strategic outsourcing services. In addition, Joe also served as CFO, IBM Global Technology Services for EMEA. Joe also held a wide variety of senior executive financial positions at both the North America and Global level. Joe is recognized as an information technology industry expert and has been featured in over 50 publications including the Wall Street Journal, USA Today, BusinessWeek, and Computer World. He was has been recognized as one of the top industry outsourcing professionals by Supply Chain Digital Magazine.
About Dave Dorn
Dave Dorn is the President/CEO Special Olympics Minnesota. He has served Special Olympics for over 18 years and is an active participant in events across the globe. Dave is a champion of Unified Sports and leads Special Olympics in their efforts to bring athletes with and without intellectual disabilities onto the same teams and into the same competitions. Dave will be an instrumental figure in the 2026 USA Games scheduled to be held in Minneapolis.
Special Olympics – 2022 & 2026 USA Games – Christine Sovereign, Joe Dzaluk and Dave Dorn
Revolution is inclusion. Fifty years ago, Eunice Kennedy Shriver declared she had enough of seeing those with intellectual disabilities be put down and shunned by society. In 1962, she opened Camp Shriver with 36 campers and became the first summer camp dedicated to providing and promoting the athletic abilities of those with intellectual disabilities. By 1968, Eunice grew her camp in the first International Special Olympics Games of over 1,000 athletes in 200 events. Now, the Special Olympics exists in every corner of the globe and has supported over five million athletes. For this episode, I traveled to Minneapolis to sit down with the leaders of the 2022 and the 2026 USA Special Olympic Games.
Joe Dzaluk led the 2022 games in Orlando. Through the partnership with Jersey Mike’s, he set a record and a new standard for fundraising and financial support for the games. Jersey Mike’s CEO, Peter Cancro, is an original member of our Jedburgh team. He told me time and time again that his commitment to the Special Olympics would be all-encompassing and equal to at least the amount of sales during Jersey Mike’s annual day of giving. For March 30th, 2022, that number was $20 million.
I watched as Joe pass the baton to Christine Sovereign and Dave Dorn to lead the 2026 games in Minneapolis. Christine will serve as the CEO and Dave is the President of the Special Olympics, Minnesota Chapter. Joe, Christine, Dave and I cover the history of the Special Olympics. We talked about Eunice Kennedy Shriver’s call to action. We discussed Special Olympics’ place as the leader of inclusion before inclusion was even a term in mainstream society.
We also discussed the success of the 2022 games, Peter Cancro and Jersey Mike’s unprecedented leadership in the example they set in giving, and what we can expect in 2026. I had never been to Minneapolis, but I can assure our audience we’ll be back to cover the games in a couple of years. Learn more about the Special Olympics and get involved at SpecialOlympics.org and follow them on social media @SpecialOlympics.
Christine, Joe, and Dave, thanks for joining me on the show.
It’s a pleasure to be here. Thanks for having us.
Thanks for hosting us here at Accenture. This is an amazing setup. We’re here in the conference room, but a great opportunity to look out across Minneapolis. Some of my friends will now tell me that I owe a case of beer for admitting this publicly, but it’s my first time being in Minneapolis.
A special and warm welcome to you then.
This is a great group. This was a great opportunity. I was speaking with our mutual friend, Amy Wise. The folks at Jersey Mike’s, Jeff Hemschoot, connected me with Amy. We started talking about how we’re going to tell the story of the Special Olympics and where the organization has come from. She said that everybody was getting together here in Minneapolis. I said, “I wanted to go to Minneapolis. We’re going to be doing a couple of episodes there. Let’s get everyone together. We’re going to have this conversation about the 2022 games. We’re going to talk about the 2026 games.”
Christine, you’re the CEO of the 2026 games. Your day job is running this office here at Accenture. You’ve been here your whole career. Joe, you’re out of the hot seat. You’re about an hour away. I’m the only thing standing between you and some level of freedom. You had your hand off and you’re going back to Florida. You led the 2022 games. We’re going to talk about that wildly successful event.
Dave, you’re coming into the hot seat along with Christine. You’re the President of the Special Olympics in Minnesota. You are charged with having to put a lot of this thing together across the state. We’re going to talk about the construct of the Special Olympics. There’s an international body, but it is state and regionally run. I thought that was interesting and something that I learned through my conversations with Amy and everyone.The Special Olympics is for everyone, for every age, and is in every community. Click To Tweet
Let’s talk about the history of this organization. It has celebrated its 50th anniversary. Eunice Kennedy Shriver started Camp Shriver in Maryland in June 1962. She received that call from a mother of a child with an intellectual disability who couldn’t find a camp for her child. She said, “This is enough.” I’m going to define “enough” because, for her, it meant exactly what it meant for my grandmother, my mother, and now my wife, which is to do something about it, “We’ve had enough. Let’s do something about it.” Dave, you’ve been with the organization for seventeen years. Can you talk about the history and where it came from?
It started in Eunice Kennedy Shriver’s backyard. Now it has grown over those 50 years to be in 170 countries. It’s five million athletes around the world. It has come such a long way with more sports, more athletes, and more purpose than what most people think about. Most people think it’s just a track and field event. Now you see that it is a movement about inclusion. I know we’re going to talk about that. When you first say Special Olympics, it has great brand recognition because of the history behind it and all the great things that have happened.
Most people think it’s a track and field event for kids with Down syndrome. That’s what people think of. There’s a great affinity or affection towards it, but they don’t know the whole scope. Probably our biggest challenge even after 50 years is what is Special Olympics all about. Something like this is great because it helps us spread the word because, in more recent years, it’s not a movement or an organization that’s doing something for a certain population. It is a movement for everybody. Unified sports are people with and without disabilities playing on the same field and playing on the same team against other teams of similar makeup.
That whole unified sports approach has opened up the doors for inclusion. Now, Special Olympics is for everyone. It is for every age and every community. That’s the big shift. The real big push and where you get the best change is going to that younger generation. The Unified School Program is where you’re seeing the huge push for growth. That’s in schools where they have unified clubs, unified sports, and unified student leadership. When I say unified, it’s students with disabilities and students without disabilities. Quite frankly, the makeup is probably 75% without disabilities, and 25% with disabilities. It’s the students with disabilities that are the catalyst because they bring everybody together. They show everybody that anybody can do this and anybody can be a part of this movement.
One of the mantras of the Special Olympics is “Special Olympics strives to create a better world by fostering the acceptance and inclusion of all people.” I thought that was important. There are over 200 million people who live with intellectual disabilities worldwide. It’s 6.5 million here in the US. The goal of the Special Olympics is to reach out to every one of them and their families, but it takes a certain type of person to be involved in this organization. I want to go around quickly and ask you why you got involved because you come from different backgrounds.
Joe, we’re going to talk about the 2022 games, but you have an entire career that you built in information technology at IBM leading global teams. We could do a whole episode on what your career was before you got into it. What we talk about on all of our shows is how we build these global organizations that affect change. You did that for 30 years at one of the leading technology firms. A few years ago, you got involved with this organization. Why?
It happened a dozen years ago when I volunteered for the first time for Special Olympics. When I hit halfway point in my career and my life, I wanted to give back. It sounds a little contrite or corny, but I wanted to give back. I knew some people who are involved with Special Olympics so I volunteered. As what happens with most people who volunteer, they said, “This is great. We can make a difference if we open up our hearts and our minds to people who are different.”
Today in society, it’s more than people with intellectual differences. You can say that if we could all open up our hearts and minds and accept people who are different, it’s better for us, it’s better for society, and it’s a win-win. I got involved because I enjoyed it and because I was giving back. What kept me coming back was I could say that I could make a difference and it felt good.
Christine, what about you?
Special Olympics has been in my life my whole life literally. My sister was born with an intellectual disability, specifically Down syndrome. I often say Special Olympics found our family. We were fortunate enough that in one of the early childhood things that we got involved with or got Katie involved with, somebody made us aware of Special Olympics. At that time, she was less than eight. You have to be eight to start competing. I specifically remember her marking the calendar and waiting for her eighth birthday to be able to start to participate.
We brought Katie to a track event, her first event when she was eight years old, as a family. It has been part of our lives ever since. I’ve been an athlete, a unified partner, a volunteer, a coach, and a board member of Special Olympics Minnesota. The opportunity to take on the leadership position for the 2026 games is passion meets purpose for me. I’m excited about the opportunity to give back in such a meaningful way.
Dave, what have you learned over the seventeen years of being involved with it?
I’ve learned a lot of things. The capability of the human spirit is amazing. The way I got involved with Special Olympics was seventeen years ago. That was my first event. That was the first day I was on the job. It was because my wife and I had adopted a child who had special needs. We’re looking for something for her to get involved in. She was ten at the time. We were even guilty of selling our own child short of what she was capable of doing. Seeing what our athletes can do was one big learning.
The other big learning was there are many good people in the world. I do this for a job but they volunteer. They come out day after day, week after week to coach and to help run things. We couldn’t do it without them. They do it out of the goodness of their heart. It is super humbling to see many people that are givers. It makes you feel like you could step up your game a little bit.If we open up our hearts and minds to people who are different, we can make a difference. Click To Tweet
Special Olympics has used the term intellectual disability. Can you define what intellectual disability is and why that term is important?
Intellectual disability has changed over the years. Way back when I was a kid in school, it was people that distinctly had learning issues or were different. They were put in a different room than everybody else which was very isolating. Over the years, what we’ve seen is you’re “mainstreamed.” You’re in classes with other students. We saw this with our daughter. You work with the shortcomings and it’s much more accepting. It’s not inclusive necessarily but much more accepting.
In the past, there used to be an IQ line. If you are above that line, you didn’t have an IEP in a school. You are not considered to have a disability. If you’re below, you did. That’s probably still true in some areas, For Special Olympics as an organization and a movement about inclusion, we take everybody. It doesn’t matter where you are in your sports capabilities. You could run the 50-yard dash in eight seconds or you could run the 50-yard dash and eight minutes, we’re still going to take it. You’re still going to have a competitive experience.
We have a wide range of abilities with all of our athletes. We don’t discern that here you have a disability and here you do not. Especially when you look at the spectrum now. With the autism spectrum, there is such a wide range of different traits and different capabilities that we open our doors up to anybody who wants to participate.
Dave said it well. There is no official definition or at least it’s not practiced. We’re inclusive. We talked a little bit about ages. Christine mentioned the age of eight. We now have the young athletes program to start at the age of two. We have a large percentage because we’re trying to help our athletes or those with intellectual differences. We help them with their social skills and their motor skills, which we all know you catch them earlier on and learn. We do have an athlete at the 2022 games who was in his 80s and a couple in their 70s. We talk about stereotypes. It’s not just a bunch of kids running track and field or playing kickball. That’s not where we’re at. Whatever type of difference you have intellectually, many of our athletes have some physical challenges, we’re open to all.
I wanted to ask about the different common types of disabilities. Christine, you mentioned that your sister has Down syndrome. There’s also Fragile X and autism. You mentioned the spectrum. There is no limit as to what Special Olympics is willing to work with.
It’s differing abilities. What were you telling me that Tim Shriver was calling it?
It’s differences as opposed to disabilities. It’s difrabilities. Especially in our society now, we’re all different. To some of them, Down syndrome is more obvious than other differences. If society could be more open to people who are different, that would be great. I met a young athlete right before the games. I said, “What would you like to get out of the game or to get out of Special Olympics?” He said, “What I would like is when I’m in the supermarket and I’m walking down the aisle and people see me, they don’t turn away.” That’s what he wants. That’s a simple request. Sometimes we see people on the street who are different or whatever. I do have a tendency to want to avoid something that might be a little uncomfortable based on our predetermined notions as to what we should be comfortable with.
If you go back in history and I’m sure if we think about when we were kids, that’s the reaction that many people have. You don’t engage with that person. “Don’t look at that person. That person is different.” The first camp that I mentioned had 34 kids, 26 counselors, and almost a one-to-one relationship. July 1968 hosts the first international Special Olympics games in Soldier Field in Chicago with 1,000 and 200 different events.
It was described as daybreak. That’s what they’ve termed that because that was the first time that people with these disabilities were put into the mainstream. They were brought together doing exactly what you brought up. It forced everybody to look and say, “These are real people who we can interact with and who can do great things.” That moment in 1968 defined and set this organization off on this trajectory that has led and pioneered at a time when we didn’t have terms like diversity inclusion, and equity. DEI didn’t exist. That’s a new initiative in the last couple of years. It has taken too long, for sure. Why has the Special Olympics been able to lead in this inclusion, diversity, and equity conversation for so long?
Let me go back to 1968. I have a picture in my office of the games and the picture from Camp Shriver. This is 1968 in Chicago in our nation’s history. I have a picture of Eunice Shriver as an athlete who just finished running a race. She went and gave an athlete a hug. That athlete happened to be Black and there she is with a big old hug. She didn’t see color. Our nation in 1968 had obviously some challenges in that area. She didn’t see that.
She set that example and it was kind of in your face. She had problems getting some permits to hold the games. She was denied. She got some assistance from some people. She was constantly pushing. She had some support from her family and her family had a lot of influence. She took advantage of that to push the envelope to get people to open up their eyes and their hearts.
With Special Olympics now with her son, Tim Shriver, as our leader and our Chairman, he has done the same thing. You had this family that’s dedicated to service who constantly pushes people. That has been a big part of it. The more people who have gotten involved in our program, whether they’re volunteers, sponsors or partners, has been great. We keep growing, but we have lots more to do.The lifeblood of the Special Olympics is the volunteers. Click To Tweet
There are three things that I reflect on. First, sport is unifying. Look at the Olympics themselves every four years that bring together every country. It sets aside political and social differences and all that to unify through sports. That’s Special Olympics, number one. Number two, it celebrates ability. It’s putting these athletes on a stage that has all of us take note of the incredible things that they’re overcoming and the success that they’re having. Third, it’s courage on a very visual level. The Special Olympics oath which we start everything with and the athletes always start with talks about, “If I can’t win, let me be brave in the attempt.” You watch this courageousness and bravery. You can’t help but be proud and celebratory about what they’re accomplishing.
I was going to say the same thing about sport. A lot of us have seen the commercial, I don’t know what product it is, but they’re in the bar and there’s the guy in the business suit and the guy with the spiked hair. They’re watching the game. They get caught up in the emotion and they hug. Sport is a level playing field. You can celebrate. It brings people together. It’s easy to volunteer. You’re watching and cheering. It’s an easy entry point for people to see something different.
The other thing is after 25 years or so, listening to the voices of the athletes and seeing what they can do, it’s the same message that we all have. We all want to belong. We all want to be included in things. The beginning of unified sports and not being just an organization that creates acceptance, but promotes inclusion. We’re seeing that now being pushed in the schools. That’s where our biggest growth engine is over the past 10 to 15 years. It’s the youth of today that are breaking down that final barrier. We’re seeing such a powerful change in school culture, lunchrooms, absenteeism, bullying, and all that stuff in schools that are promoting the unified movement in unified champion schools. They’re seeing big changes. This inclusion has become a big part of the movement before it rolls into the community.
That’s an interesting point about the schools that I’m going to take home with me now. My daughter is going into eighth grade. I’m going to go ask that question and ask, “Where are we? Where is the school with this?”
That’s the goal. You had mentioned that earlier. Our goal is to get into every school here in the State of Minnesota. Every state is pushing the same way in the Special Olympics movement. It’s to get into every school. Those kids, no matter where they are, are part of the club. Those unified clubs, most of them are kids that do not have intellectual disabilities. They’re kids and a lot of times, that would not be in anything else. It is made up of every walk of life in the school culture. The athletes are the catalyst. They graduate and then they go on into the workforce. Now they’re more apt to hire somebody that’s maybe got an intellectual disability or a little bit different. It’s a change agent that is super powerful.
I want to ask about the Special Olympics as an organization. There’s this small international governing body. The primary workload is carried out at the regional level and the state level. Every state has their own Special Olympics entity. They’re structured as nonprofits. The staffs are small. Amy was telling me that the full-time staff in Florida for the 2022 games were five people. They did a tremendous feat. Certainly, there were a lot of the volunteers that you mentioned. Joe, you were the President of the 2022 games. Christine, you’ll take over for the 2026 games. Can you talk about how the organization is structured? Dave, you too because you’ve sat in this role for a while. Why does this system work? Why is it important?
We had a small staff as do the states on the structure that you outlined. Every country and every state has their own organization that has its own separate charitable 501(c)(3) organization. Dave’s team is small. You told me, Dave, you’ve got 48 people doing the whole state. I had a small team doing the games. It’s volunteers. We have many volunteers. At our games, we had almost 30,000 volunteer shifts. We could not afford to pay that many people. We want the money to go to the athletes and their competitions. It’s the volunteers. What’s amazing about the volunteers is they came from all over the United States.
There must be local volunteers. People are committed to coming out and spending eight hours. We had people from Europe come. We had many people come from California. They come to prior games and they enjoyed it. They take their 1 or 2 weeks of vacation from work. They hop on a plane at their own expense and they come. Like Peter Cancro, they realized that by giving, they receive in a different way by not getting some assets or fancy hotel rooms.
The lifeblood of our organization is our volunteers. That’s how we exist, especially out in the communities because we are in tens of thousands of communities here in the United States. You couldn’t have staff in all those places. You have coaches. Those coaches are often people who work full-time jobs. They have kids. They may be the high school swim coach and they say, “I’ll help out.” It’s amazing how many good people are out there helping our athletes and giving our athletes an opportunity to excel in life, gain social skills, self-esteem, friends, and physical abilities, and have fun.
It is volunteers and it is community focused. Every state is a different environment. You want to meet your communities where the athletes are at, what sports are popular, and how you support those. Some have more staff, some have more volunteers, and some are more school driven. You couldn’t have one national body that oversaw every state. It’s two different. You would lose out. This way we can get the most people and meet them where they’re at and support them the way we need to.
The international support that we get has amped up because of the exposure that we get now with the global partnerships with ESPN who came on board because we are inclusive. Once unified sports came about, ESPN says, “Is this for everybody? We’re all in.” The NFL, WWE, and those partnerships at the global level, it’s a bigger platform for them. We benefit immensely from that. Those are kind of the relationships that we see back and forth.
The 2022 games were held in Orlando in June. I was trying to get out there. I was in India at the time. Unfortunately, I couldn’t. It had over 4,000 athletes. You mentioned the number of volunteers was over 30,000, and 125,000 spectators. Jersey Mike’s donated $20 million. Every year on the last Wednesday of the month, Jersey Mike’s donates in what’s called the Day of Giving. We’ve done a couple of episodes on this. As everybody knows, Jersey Mike’s is the title sponsor of the show. Peter Cancro has been a mentor and a friend of mine for several years now. We appreciate so much everything that he has done for us, for launching this show, supporting this show, and getting our message out.
He was on in December 2021 for a follow-up. We had done Episode Two. He tells the story of Jersey Mike’s. It’s still one of our best episodes. He came on in December 2021 and he said, “We’re going to do this thing. We’re going to sponsor the Special Olympics. We’re going to give 100% of revenue on the Day of Giving next year.” I went back and I listened to this episode after he gave 100% of revenue because I had interpreted that as most people would, as profit.
Jersey Mike’s gave every dollar that they made on that day to the Special Olympics. If we quantify what that meant, a few years ago, they did $5 million. In another year, they did $8 million. In Episode Two that we had done in March 2021, we try to achieve $8 million. If you listen to my conversation with Peter, you can see there’s a history of him telling me things and me not believing him, and then having to go back and be like, “I should have believed you.” He had said, “When we do this with the Special Olympics, it will blow away exponentially everything we’ve ever done before,” and it did at $20 million.If corporate America can just give to give, the world will be in a better place. Click To Tweet
You spent four years planning this, Joe. Amy told me in my conversation with her that the generosity that was shown by Jersey Mike’s has changed the game for the Special Olympics. Can you talk about the relationship with Jersey Mike’s, what Peter brought to the table, the relationship you built with him, and how impactful it was in 2022?
First of all, we are so grateful to Jersey Mike’s, to the entire organization, and to all the franchisees who supported Special Olympics. We’re excited. It was back in January 2019. I was up in New Jersey. I met with Peter. In our first meeting, he said, “I’m all in. I’m going to do this.” It was one meeting. He was one of our few partners who didn’t ask about the return on investment or how many signs he was going to get. He looked at me and we talked and agreed on the financial structure of the deal. I said, “Let me talk to you about what we can do in return.” I always remember this. He looked at me and goes, “Joe, are you listening to me?” I’m like, “Yeah, I’m listening to you.” He’s like, “I’m giving to give.”
He’s genuine about it.
I could tell you some stories about how we gave some stuff back to Jersey Mike’s. He kept saying, “You give it to somebody.” He could have sold it to somebody else. I said, “We need to do something for you.” He said, “You’re missing the point.” He’s figured out like those volunteers who came from Europe and California, they’ve broken the code. You give to give. It’s hard for some of us. You can pat me on the back and say, “Good job. That was nice.” He’s not doing it for that. That’s the beauty.
We were at the stores and we announced some athletes going to the games. They had confetti and balloons. I went up to a guy and I put out a credit card. I said, “Here’s for all the athletes who started here.” He said, “You don’t have to pay.” I said, “The athletes’ families came.” The families came. I think they realized that people will take extra brownies and stuff. I noticed they weren’t keeping track at the register for what they were giving out. I said, “I got to pay.” He said, “You don’t understand.” This is a guy who’s at the store who’s got payroll and who may not be wealthy. He said, “This is our company culture here at Jersey Mike’s. We understand we’re in a business, but we give.”
He’s got an army of people like him. He’s built this company, which is why it’s such a great company and why people love them. They don’t get into some of the other issues that other chains have in terms of people suing people and whatever. It’s a great company. It’s a great partnership. Peter said, “Let’s go do this.” We got all 50 states involved, even the two states that don’t have Jersey Mike’s in them yet.
They all got involved. They went out to the stores. The athletes went out to the stores. We promoted it on social media. It was a great event for Jersey Mike’s. It was a great month of giving for us. We broke all records. We have some exciting news about 2026 that I’ll defer to in a second. It was a great partnership. Peter is great. His management team there in the headquarters is great. The whole company is great.
When he was there at the games, he wanted to be with the athletes. He didn’t want to go to the corporate tent. He didn’t want to sit in a suite. He wants to see the benefit. The athletes knew who he was. They knew Jersey Mike’s because we were eating these great subs every day from Jersey Mike’s. It was a great overall experience and a great partnership. It’s a great example of what Corporate America can do. It helped Jersey Mike’s. Many people said, “What a great company.” They did it for other than numerical reasons. They probably got some good return on it, but that wasn’t the point. If we could all do a little bit more of that, we would all be in a better place.
We talk about doing what’s right. We talk about integrity. Christine, before we started, you and I were talking about the nine characteristics of performance that Special Operations Forces use to assess, recruit, and select talent. One of the key components of a lot of our conversations on the show, when we have leadership discussions, is this idea of integrity and doing the right thing. Do the right thing day in and day out for the right reason, not to try to get something, and good things will happen to you. If they don’t happen right now, keep doing the right thing. Eventually, it will work out. Joe, you look back on the games. We joke that your freedom bird is almost here. It’s what we used to call it. You’ve had a couple of months to reflect. What’s the highlight?
Dave asked me a similar question earlier as we walked into the building. For me, it was the joy of the athletes. Many of these athletes had never left their home state. Many had never been on an airplane before. This was truly a once in a lifetime experience, but they came here. They got to experience the theme parks. Walt Disney World is a great sponsor of ours. They got to experience being with other athletes competing and the opportunity to shine.
Society often defines what our athletes can and can’t do. They’ve got these preconceived notions that our athletes went out there, they competed in the hot sun, sometimes in the rain, but mostly in beautiful weather as it normally is in Florida. It’s the joy that they got and the joy of being treated special. Special was coming to a sporting event. Who had the most tears? The parents would come up and say, “You have no idea how my son or daughter or sister has been looking forward to this for a year. They’ve had COVID. We’ve been locked up or out. We’re down here in the entertainment capital of the world. We’re up to experience all this acceptance and love.” That’s what it was. It was a love fest.
Also, the venues were state-of-the-art. Our athletes train super hard. You go back to Eunice Kennedy Shriver. Joe, you were talking about how she pushed. Excellence in sport was a big push. Let’s not do something nice for our athletes. They got to be pushed, but then if they’re at that level, they should have state-of-the-art venues. To be at a world-class venue with the stands and all the pomp and circumstance that they see on other Olympic games or pro sports or whatever, they’re on the same field as those athletes. That is a huge thing. It’s a life-changing event for our athletes. The venues down there were spectacular.
One of the things we continue to try to do is increase the level of competition, whether it’s the officials, the physical venues, or the level of competition. The more of that we can do, the better. When you’re putting athletes in these state-of-the-art facilities that many of them competed in, it raises the whole level and helps society’s perception. We had ESPN televising it. These are competitive events. These are athletes who are out there. They’ve got some cases or some physical challenges. They have not been able to train as much because of COVID, but they’re out there and they’re competing and trying harder than sometimes our professional athletes do.
We think about where we go from here too because the 2022 games were exceptional. Joe, you and the team have so much to be proud of and we have big shoes to fill. If we think about the athletes and that level of competitive pursuit, health and wellness is something that we’re thinking a lot about as the theme of games and as a legacy that we want to leave. How do we think about what’s our run-up to the game? Not just in terms of getting ready for an event, but how do we think about athlete readiness and health and wellness and their training regimes? How do we think about the platform that this gives us for what’s after the 2026 games in terms of where they take their competitive careers from there and overall health and wellness?Society often defines what athletes can and can't do. Click To Tweet
We talked about people’s preconceived notions as to what Special Olympics does. They think we’re a sporting organization for children, which we’re not. We defined it. The oldest Special Olympic athlete in the United States is in their 90s. We are more of a sports organization. It was four pillars that we have. One of them is sports. The other big one is we are the largest health organization for people with intellectual disabilities in the world. We did over 13,000 health exams for our athletes. We had literally hundreds of healthcare professionals doing 1 of 7 different health exams, hearing, eyesight, dentistry, podiatry, healthy minds, etc.
We’re able to do these health exams because we found that our athletes who are not healthy don’t compete as well. Dave talked about the level of competition. To raise the level of competition, you can’t do that if you can’t see or hear properly. We had some great stories. If we had some more time, I could tell you about the athletes who could not hear. They were deaf their whole life. They came to Orlando. They had some specialized testing done. They were fitted with custom new state-of-the-art hearing aids. Doctors had told them their whole life they could not hear. We had one athlete from Maryland who is 45 years old that could hear for the first time. It’s not like they couldn’t hear well. They are deaf their whole life.
Some of our athletes are non-verbal, and sometimes it’s difficult to figure out what the issue was. Our good friends at Starkey had some high-tech equipment that had never been used before on our athletes. We fitted our athletes with over 100 hearing aids. Of our 4,000 athletes, 1,000 of them walked in for eye tests. They either needed glasses and didn’t have them or had the wrong glasses. We had almost the same with feet, wrong size shoes, wrong size arches. You look at these numbers and you say, “How could that be?” You look at society and where we are in healthcare, our athletes sometimes come from lower socioeconomic or can’t communicate what their issues are, but then you get them in front of some trained professionals.
We make a big difference not only on the field but from a health perspective. We’re changing lives. That’s the secret sauce. It’s the health piece of it. Sports are great but for me, I was surprised by how much we can do to help the health of our athletes. Our Healthy Athlete program is opened up. It’s not just for people’s intellectual disabilities who are in Special Olympics. We open up to anybody, at least we do in several states, to let people come in. That’s one of the areas that we hope we continue to grow, especially as our country grapples with the healthcare crisis that we have.
What do the next four years look like as prep for the 2026 games?
Dovetailing up the comments, it’s this platform of health and wellness. Our athletes will be a big focus for us. We got a lot of work to do. I’m inspired by what’s ahead and the opportunity to host an amazing event and use the platform to continue to do good things.
The marketing of Special Olympics and people understanding what we’re all about is probably one of our biggest challenges as a movement. This gives us selfishly in the State of Minnesota, but to get every corner of the state involved in these games. We want to get every school involved in some way, shape, or form. It’s led by students and by our athletes. We’ve already set up athlete leadership committees and student advisory groups to help us so that they are the ones driving the actions, the activations, and what have you that get every school and community. We have an urban initiative with our unified school. We’re working with the Minneapolis public schools. We’ll be targeting St. Paul.
There are other communities that we don’t serve historically because we don’t have an entree there. This new platform with the USA Games coming here gives us a great calling card to go out to the Somali community, the Hispanic community, and the Hmong community, which are our large populations here in Minnesota, as well as the African-American community in the urban setting, and invite them to participate, plan, and be a part of this. If we didn’t have the games coming, it would be a long haul. This gives us a shorter window to activate and get more people involved. We’re excited about that.
Joe said you had an announcement.
We’re appreciative of Jersey Mike’s willingness to be a presenting sponsor for us for 2026. Peter and his team’s generosity gives us a running start in an important way.
You can count on us coming out as well to be here. We got four years to put the plan. Special Olympics has embarked on a campaign called Revolution Is Inclusion. They’re calling for all of us to be a part of a powerful new generation that celebrates all differences and all abilities. Much of inclusivity, inclusion, diversity and equity I believe comes down to communication. How effectively are we able to spread our message? How do we interact with other people?
You talked about giving, Joe. You talked about opening your heart and being accepting of other people. That summed up so much this Revolution Is Inclusion. I love also how the Special Olympics talks about this as a peaceful representation of revolution because that’s so different from where we normally talk about rebellion and revolution. They’ve talked about the need to communicate with respect, compassion and care. Why does it start there?
Inviting people to belong is an important factor. Not just noticing people, but inviting them to be a part of the movement. If you meet people where they’re at and they feel welcomed, respected and heard, those are the things that make you feel like you belong somewhere. That’s what this movement does. We’re pushing even more so to be led by our athletes and our students because they are the next generation. We can all talk about it intellectually, but you have to make a concerted effort to live it when you’re my age and you’ve been around for so long. Our youth is changing that already. You see that in the schools. We lean on them to help lead us going forward.
It ultimately comes down to acceptance. Inclusion has to be there to be accepted. If you haven’t been included, they’re not going to understand your journey and what’s important to you. You’re ultimately not going to be accepted. This inclusion revolution is critical to the future that we all want to live in.
I’m going to keep you in the hot seat for one second here, Christine. As we close out, the Jedburghs had to do three things to be effective during World War II. They were their habits. I call them foundations. They had to be able to shoot, move, and communicate. If they trained and they did these things with the utmost precision, then they could focus their attention on more complex challenges that came their way every day that they had to solve. As you look across the calendar for the next several years and you’ve gone through the planning here over the last couple of days, what are the three things that you’re going to do every day to set the conditions for the success of the 2026 games?
First, it’s waking up every day, appreciating and keeping in the forefront the mission. The mission is about athletes. It’s about an athlete’s experience and athlete’s acceptance. The second thing is surrounding us with a team of people that are committed to the mission, care deeply about it, and are prepared to work hard to put an amazing event forward. The third is about the legacy. Not just thinking about the event. We could all put together an amazing event for a week in June of 2026, but thinking about the legacy that we want to leave. How do we think about the platform that we have for the next four years running up to the event here? How do we think about the legacy that we want to leave in the aftermath of it? If we get all three of those things right, we’ll be in a great place.
Those are incredible. Keep the mission in the forefront, surround yourself with a team of people committed to working hard and dedicated to that mission, and remember the legacy, past, present, and what legacy you’re going to leave for the future. We talk about these nine characteristics, drive, resiliency, adaptability, humility, integrity, curiosity, teamability, effective intelligence, and emotional strength. To put these games on it, be in this organization and compete in this organization, be a part of it in whatever way you choose, you do need all nine of these. We talked about a couple of them in detail, but at the end of these conversations, I think about one that summarizes what we talked about and what I see here. For me, it’s integrity. It’s about doing what’s right.
This started in 1962 with Eunice Kennedy Shriver on a mission that she embarked on. She had the drive and the courage to stand up in front of the world and say, “This is a demographic of the population that we care about that is valued in society that we will learn from if we will bring them in.” That started with the daylight of the 1968 games and continues to this day. It continues through people who are dedicated to the mission as the three of you are. It continues with people who are willing to give like Jersey Mike’s and the other sponsors and everybody who volunteers.
It has been a pleasure to come here to Minneapolis for the first time and sit down with you. I appreciate your generosity and your time. I look forward to the next four years, following up periodically to figure out where we’re at, what we’re planning, and then being back here to cover the games. Thank you so much.
Thank you very much.
- Episode Two – Jersey Mike’s Founder & CEO – Peter Cancro
- Joe Dzaluk – LinkedIn
- Christine Sovereign – LinkedIn
- Dave Dorn – LinkedIn
- Jersey Mike’s