"People thought I was mad. They told me it wouldn't work." Annie Risso faced more than her fair share of difficulties after introducing Special Olympics to Gibraltar. Risso is currently the National Director for Special Olympics Gibraltar, which is part of a worldwide organisation that serves athletes with intellectual disabilities
However, back in 1984, Risso was working as a manager of Saint Bernadette's Occupational Centre, an adult daycare centre for people with intellectual disabilities. Worried by the fact that those who attended the centre were largely left to themselves after going home at 4pm, Risso spoke with Sue Young, an occupational therapist in Gibraltar on contract there from Scotland. Risso told Young how much the service users seemed to enjoy the exercises that she organised herself during lunchtimes, which led her to be introduced to Special Olympics by the therapist.
However, signing the contract to begin the programme proved to be the most painless part of a difficult beginning as Risso and the other volunteers aimed to create solid foundations for the organisation. "The frontier was still closed and it was a new initiative. Overhearing people that doubted me made my skin crawl but at the same time it made be more determined to make it work, not for me, but because I knew what it was doing for the athletes. They had gone from not going out at all to being on the athletic tracks and in the swimming pool, which meant the community got to know them as people."
A year later, athletics and aquatics were the two sports in which the athletes competed in at the European Special Games in Dublin with 21 other countries. Some 32 years later, not only has the whole organisation grown, but the number of sports that Special Olympics Gibraltar can offer have increased from two to eight summer sports and four winter sports.
Fifteen athletes from Gibraltar will compete in three of those four winter sports in the Special Olympic Games which begin in Schladming, Austria on 14 March. Although they will be looking to build on previous success in snowshoeing, Gibraltar will be competing in floorball, a type of poly hockey, and alpine skiing competitively for the first time.
The former is of great importance to the younger members of Special Olympics Gibraltar, with the organisation having selected a team for the 15-23 age category. "We have served (through floorball) a lot of athletes that have not had the opportunity previously to go away to world games and compete. Some of them have not even flown or seen snow before, so it'll be an amazing experience for them," Risso stated.
The alpine skiing will see a familiar face to many Gibraltarians return to compete in a different field. Samuel Santos won gold for Gibraltar in the World Summer Games in Los Angeles two years ago in open water swimming, and his achievement didn't go unnoticed. Not only was he congratulated by passers-by after returning home, ESPN TV, the American sports channel that will be televising the Austria Games, came to Gibraltar to make a feature on the athlete - a report that will be broadcast around the world during the competition.
Just like many of the other athletes, Santos competes in several different sports and is a beneficiary of the contrasting training methods employed by various coaches. From the more physical training involved in open water swimming, the gold medallist has adjusted to the more technical alpine skiing thanks to the "family" that surround him at Special Olympics Gibraltar. Despite it being his first competition in the sport, his desire to replicate his achievement in the USA in 2015 is stronger than ever.
"I have improved a lot and I feel like I have achieved my level. I am really grateful to the coach that I have been taught so much, and I will give it my best shot. Like the Special Olympics oath says, let me win, but if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt."
Both Risso and Santos have fond memories of returning to Gibraltar after Special Olympic Games abroad. The 1985 game saw the athletes "heralded like heroes" according to Risso when they landed back in Gibraltar, while Santos has a similar recollection of "people waiting at the airport cheering for us upon our arrival."
Perhaps success in Austria may better those experiences.