Run! A shot
rang out and a group of kids wearing competition jerseys darted towards
the finish line. Suddenly a kid stopped in the middle of the track,
the coach shouted from outside of the field, Dont stop!
Faster! The runner replied that he wanted to wait for his competition.
What Yu Cai Zhang just witnessed happened in the first Chinese National
Special Olympics held in Shenzhen, Guangzhou in March 1987. At that
time, only 300 athletes from 13 cities in China participated in track
and two other games.
Zhang, who graduated with a Physical Education (PE) major from a training
school, was just stepping onto this unfamiliar field called special
I didnt know what to do, I was lost. Zhang was passionate
about teaching PE. He dreamed of achieving big goals. Upon graduating,
his designated teaching institute didnt allow him to continue
his education and study at Beijing Normal University (BNU). But being
young and vigorous, Zhang told his supervisor, I will go anywhere,
as long as I can further my education.
In 1984, Zhang was transferred to a special education school in the
Chong Wen district of Beijing. One day he was dragging a heavy tug
o war rope by himself from the equipment room to the sports
field, followed by one student. Every time the rope moved, the student
would step on it, I looked back, he smiled at me, let go of
the rope; I kept walking and he stepped on the rope again. I was a
little annoyed, he thought it was funny.
For many years, Zhang was very confused when facing a group of kids
who had cognitive and/or physical disabilities. When Id
say attention, some kids put out their left foot, some put out their
right. There were a few dozen people, I couldnt remember everyones
name, so I numbered everyone and had them remember their position
The greatest dream of a PE coach is the success of his students. With
these students, Zhang felt worthless. In addition, the job was exhausting
and paid little. His family couldnt really look forward to the
benifits that usually came with teaching. For instance, children of
teachers are admitted to whichever school employs the parent. Seeing
his friends make more money, Zhang was tempted to leave; however,
his heart went out to these unattended pupils, who needed him. Special
education schools struggle finding qualified teachers, especially
for PE. The department is limited to begin with, if I left,
PE might not exist. As time went on, Zhangs impatience
evolved into a parental role, he became more patient and hopeful.
Initially, the kids might seem one-dimensional, but upon spending
more time with them, your views change. Your kindness is always reciprocated.
They never forget how youve interacted with them. A turning
point was in 1987, when he first took his students to Hong Kong to
compete. Returning victorious, their happiness was undeniable,
showing off their trophies with pure excitement. They even put their
medals around my neck. This was the first time I experienced the tremendous
impact brought to these kids by the Special Olympics. It was also
when, I too, felt truly happy. It was when I first realized how much
they, can do.
Math or the Chinese language may not have been their strong suit,
but the Special Olympics provided them with a platform to express
themselves and achieve honorable goals. I told myself, this
just might be my career.
Zhang became one of the very first Special Olympics coaches in not
only Beijing, but in all of China. He introduced the Special Olympics
to many familiesan international program of training and competition.
Organized specifically for people with intellectual disabilities,
to improve physical health and explore potential. PE, a typical elective
course in an elementary school, became an opportunity that could change
these childrens lives.
In the 1980s, the first group of students transferred from public
school into Chong Wen Special Education Institue. Their IQs were between
55 and 75. With the new reform and open policy, more children with
developmental disabilities enrolled.
In recognizing that these children required non traditional attention,
Zhang constructed different approaches in order to get more consistent
results from his students. In doing so, he was recognized for his
work by the Special Olympics founder, Eunice Kennedy. And during their
visit to China, Sargent Shriver commented, Even though the Chong
Wen Institute has limited space and staff, the results are still good!
When new sports are introduced to the International Special Olympics,
they are also introduced at Chong Wen Institute. Zhang went beyond
traditional track and field, basketball and soccer. He pioneered practice
for many other sports including ping pong, roller skating, badminton,
tennis, lawn bowling and biking. Zhang even used his connections to
implement unconventional sports such as golf and horseback riding.
He made tracks for a student in a wheelchair who really wanted to
bowl. He bridged the wheelchair and the gutters with two steel pipes
allowing the child to push the ball and bowl with the others. He believes
everyone should have the opportunity to enjoy sports.
Zhang understands that funding and staff for special education is
limited. For those questioning any of his PE practices, he argues
that not much is needed to implement a particular sport, besides creativity.
In 2001, Zhang won the Chinese Special Education Senior Teacher Award
and in 2005, he won the International Special Education Senior Teacher
Award in the East Asia. He also became a committee member of China
Association of Persons with Intellectual Disability and their Relatives
(CAPlDR) and took on another job as a career trainer at school. He
managed to invite the best instructors to teach students how to cook,
massage, how to create clay sculptures and much more. Some students
received culinary certificates, a few of the students face clay
sculptures were given away as gifts to colleagues in China and abroad.
Zhang is known for having fun at work. He often carries candy around
and treats everyone. You have the responsibility to take good
care of them. If these children get hurt, its not tears their
parents cry, its blood. Special education changes children
and in turn, society. Special Olympics brings success to kids and
hope to parents. Your effort is reflected in the students. Ever
since I became their coach, they became my own. The medals they achieved
through diligent training, they hung on my neck as well. But the care
and love they give me, the happiness and achievements, are my best
by Fei Fei Lu
This story is part of a series of articles published as an exclusive
editorial exchange between China
Press for People with Disabilities & Spring Breeze and ABILITY
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