They are the champions: Meet the Team GB athletes at the Special Olympics

The Special Olympics World Games 2019 start in Abu Dhabi tomorrow, celebrating 50 years of the movement with over 7,000 athletes with intellectual disabilities competing in a series of sports and events. Here are some of the amazing individuals representing the 128-strong GB team

Hetty Bartlett, 28, Athletics: “I’m capable of more than I ever imagined”

Hetty Bartlett from Orford, near Ipswich, has won an incredible 28 Special Olympics medals but this will be her first time taking part in the World Games, which she describes as her “dream”.

“As a baby I was born prematurely and was very ill, with an extremely rare disease called Familial Hypocalciuric Hypercalcaemia,” she says. “It is a hereditary disease and to date there are only a handful of people around the globe that are known to have a similar condition. I also have elevated calcium levels in my blood which led to me being very sick as a child and resulted in me struggling to grow at a normal rate and leading to severe learning difficulties.

Herry Bartlett Special Olympics
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For Hetty Bartlett, competing in the World Games is a "dream"

“The hospital didn’t think I’d make it to five years old. But throughout my life, I’ve been proving doctors wrong, proving bullies wrong and proving teachers wrong.

“In a lot of ways, I’ve been proving myself wrong too,” she continues. “I used to doubt myself and think ‘I won’t be able to do that’. But the Special Olympics has shown me what success and self-belief feels like. I’ve realised that I am capable of more than I imagined and I’ve changed so much as a result.

“I want to come home from Abu Dhabi with three golds, three personal bests and three world records! So not much really…! But if there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that you’ve got to go for it. It’s about believing you can.”

Harrison Lovett Special Olympics
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Even dislocating a finger or a shoulder during judo competitions does not stop Harrison Lovett

Harrison Lovett, 20, Judo: “He’s achieved more than we ever dared dream”

Harrison from Glasgow is representing Great Britain in judo. He has overcome incredible odds to compete in the Special Olympics.

Registered blind as well as being hearing impaired, he had a stroke while still in the womb, which caused PVL (periventricular leukomalacia) – a significant brain injury that has led to cerebral palsy and hypermobility in his shoulders, fingers and toes.

“He has been known to dislocate a shoulder or finger during a fight or race, relocate it himself and carry on,” says his mum Fiona Lovett.

Harrison also has Joubert Syndrome – an extremely rare genetic brain condition which affects motor skills, movement and balance, and also has autistic traits and learning disabilities.

Fiona says: “Harrison has achieved far more than we ever dared dream. Having been told it was unlikely that he would walk, talk or sit up, he is doing it all, and so much more. He’s winning medals with the Special Olympics and is off to represent his country in the World Games! He is making memories that will last a lifetime and we fully believe the best is yet to come.”

“I’m really excited for the World Games in Abu Dhabi,” Harrison says. “When I first started judo, I just went along and liked it – now I’ve been doing it almost ten years. I wouldn’t have ever believed I’d end up representing Great Britain – I’ve seen friends do it, both through the Special Olympics and Paralympics, but I never thought it would be me.”

Ella Curtis Special Olympics
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Cycling star Ella Curtis

Ella Curtis, 16, Cycling: “People are surprised that a teenage girl with Down’s Syndrome can represent her country through sport”

Ella from Bradford has Down’s Syndrome. At the Special Olympics Summer Games in 2017, she became a national champion in her division and will be the first Yorkshire cyclist to ever compete in the World Games, in its 50-year history.

“I used to be scared of cycling, especially going downhill, the bendy bits and going really fast or overtaking,” Ella admits. “Now, I do turbo or trike on the road every day. I’m not afraid anymore.

Ella Curtis Special Olympics
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Ella Curtis will be the first Yorkshire cyclist to ever compete in the World Games

“My story seems to connect with other girls. The other day I shared a picture of myself in my new GB kit and I was surprised by how much love and kindness there was on social media for the photo. I think people were shocked that a teenage girl with Down’s Syndrome can represent her country through sport. I hope it makes young girls see that you can do anything if you believe in yourself.”

Ella’s dad Tim Curtis adds: “I know when we get to Abu Dhabi, I will be crying from the pride and emotion of all of it.

“I’ll cry at the beginning, at the end, for Ella, and for all the athletes from all the different countries. It’s just profoundly moving, you have to respect the power of what you’re seeing.

“Ella will be calm though. She’s got a ‘race face’ – when it’s race time, she’ll just go for it. She’s incredibly determined. It will be awesome to see her racing on the Formula One track in Abu Dhabi – I mean, wow.”

Kiera Byland Special Olympics
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Kiera Byland has also starred on the bike

Kiera Byland, 20, Cycling: “Each of us has been given a voice.”

Kiera will be celebrating her 21st birthday on the day she flies out to Abu Dhabi with the Special Olympics GB team. Kiera has had a remarkable Special Olympics journey, having won three gold medals at the last World Games in LA, as well as becoming a young ambassador for inclusive sports.

She says: “The Special Olympics has been life-changing for me because I experienced bullying in my school. All I wanted was friends, but other people thought it was fun to pick on me all day. I felt vulnerable and would hide in the toilets. I desperately wanted to get into sports – but I wasn’t very good at anything that needed hand-eye coordination as I have dyspraxia and I struggle with balance.

“I got into track cycling, and in 2014, I was asked if I’d ever heard of the Special Olympics. That was the beginning of a big adventure that saw me training for the World Games and becoming part of an amazing community. I didn’t have any friends at school – suddenly I had friends from all over the country. I’m part of a global family now, and each of us within that family has been given a voice. We feel valued.”

Shane Baxter, 20, Gymnastics: “Even though I find some things difficult, amazing things can still happen in my life”

Shane, who has who has some autistic traits as well as ADHD and learning difficulties, was just 14 when he got involved in the Special Olympics. Competing in gymnastics in the National Games in 2017, he brought home four golds, a silver and a bronze.

“I went to the National Games in Bath with my mum and sister to watch, and the atmosphere was unreal,” he says. “It made me really want to be a part of everything and I was determined to be at the next National GamesI never dreamed that after that I would also be able to go to the World Games in Abu Dhabi. I suppose it makes me feel that even though I find some things difficult, amazing things can still happen in my life.”

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Shane Baxter has had a glittering career at national level (Credit: Nicola Baxter)

His mum Nicola says: “The Special Olympics has become an extended family for Shane. In the past, Shane tried other sports where the atmosphere was tough and less inclusive, and he didn’t get the motivation or encouragement. But what’s brilliant about the Special Olympics is that the atmosphere isn’t about beating the person next to you. Although it’s a competition, you’re still very friendly with one another and celebrate each other’s achievements.”

Lily Mills Special Olympics
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Lily Mills "really comes alive on the tennis court"

Lily Mills, 18, Tennis: “A lot of girls feel excluded from sport, let alone girls with a learning disability.”

Lily Mills, from Islington, has been under the care of Great Ormond Street for her whole life. When she was born, she was diagnosed with ecoli-meningitis and septicaemia, as well as a rare genetic disorder, galactosemia, which results in learning difficulties and a range of medical conditions. Her mother Tallulah Bayley was told she had only a 50/50 chance of survival.

Lily’s mum Tallulah explains: “Time and time again, Lily has shown how strong she is. When we first started looking into tennis, a lot of coaches thought Lily would never be able to perform, they said she wouldn’t be able to pick a racket up and didn’t want to teach her. Now she’s a female tennis ambassador, she is the number two female tennis player with learning disabilities in the UK, and she is representing Great Britain at the Special Olympics World Games in Abu Dhabi. I’m so proud of how far she’s come.

“Lily knows she is different to other people her age and that there are things she can’t do as well as other people, but she comes alive on the tennis court. She becomes somebody who is really achieving something. I can’t express what it means to me as her mum.”

Ruairidh Brown Special Olympics
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Ruairidh Brown is a "different person" socially since the getting involved with the Special Olympics

Ruairidh Brown, 20, Cycling: “Since my son got involved in the Special Olympics, he’s a different person”

Ruairidh, 20, from East Kilbride in Scotland, was diagnosed with a range of learning difficulties when he was 18 months old. He got involved with Special Olympics aged 15, and has competed in the European Games in 2014 in Belgium, and in the World Games in LA the following year.

His dad Graeme Brown says: “For me as a Dad, I get a real kick out of seeing that feeling of absolute joy in Ruairidh after a race – you can see him get excited and feeling the buzz, and that’s what I love.

“As a child Ruairidh was often quiet and timid, and it can be a challenge for him to think of coherent answers whilst processing information. But since he got involved in the Special Olympics, if you put him in a social situation, he’s a different person. He loves the company of the other athletes and any opportunity to socialise with them – he’s part of a community and the Special Olympics movement is a huge part of his life now.”

The Special Olympics World Games will take place in Abu Dhabi from 14th – 21st March 2019
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