Haryana's Saraswati strikes gold at Special Olympics

Sporting success always results in massive outpourings of joy. Regardless of the event, the magnitude of the competition itself, fist pumps, smiles, cheers and applause follow freely at the end of the finish line. And while the Special Olympics World Games are never about the medals, and the victories -- their podiums after all are designed to acknowledge every participant in every race and event -- in the immediacy of a victory, the joy is unbound.
It was exactly the way at the end of the 500m roller skating event on June 20 when Saraswati dominated her race to win India's second gold of the games. Her cool-down lap saw her skate straight into the jubilant arms of her coaches, cheering and rooting for her from the sidelines. As a young girl growing up in Haryana, Saraswati struggled to read, write and absorb lessons in class, often to the great frustration of her school teachers. They would scold her and push her more but to no success. The 15-year-old comes from a small village in Mewat district, and the school did not have the capacity or the knowledge to know better. It was only when Aaradhana Mataniya, a teacher who specialises in working with children with special needs, met her, that things changed for the better.
Mataniya understood that Saraswati was a special needs child with a low IQ and limited cognitive ability. She pushed her into sports, and over the years, Saraswati took to athletics, floorball and many others. But, when she first put on the skates, her talent was evident to all.
One of the big challenges was finding support for her to thrive and flourish at the sport. Her father, a labourer, was not in a position to get her skates, let alone enrol her into an academy that would train her better. The parents were also resistant to their daughter playing sports, unsure about the benefits it would have on her. Mataniya's constant counselling and regular communication turned them around.
In 2022, at the National Health Festival 2022 organised by Special Olympics Bharat, Saraswati's present coaches scouted her and brought her into the SO Bharat programme. Regular support, at camps, as well as training and better skates, saw her improve in leaps and bounds.
A Class XI student at the Government Senior School, Padhani, Saraswati's coaches, Anil Kumar and roller-skating head coach (female) Nayana Abhay Dolas shouted themselves hoarse through her 500m race, to motivate her right till the finish line. And once she crossed it in first place, they screamed even louder, to catch her attention and engulf her in a hug.
"Saraswati epitomises the Special Olympics spirit and also what the movement wants to achieve. She had been marginalised by society, who were unable to understand her gifts. But just getting noticed by one person with the capacity to understand, and then others who helped her, she's now got a gold. She'll go back home with newfound confidence and beautiful memories for life. It tells you how little it takes to support these athletes, how necessary it is, and how great the reward can be, really, " Anil Kumar said.


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