After nine days of record-breaking sportsmanship and a breathtaking opening ceremony in Los Angeles, the 2015 Special Olympics World Games came to end earlier this month.

Scores of elated athletes returned to their home nations, some with medals and some without, but all with a sense of achievement for being given the chance to compete and win.

Paul Booth, 25, from Perth in Scotland, and Jordan Okonta, 17, from Worthing in West Sussex, were two of those athletes who represented Great Britain. They were born with intellectual learning disabilities, and both experienced similar hardships during their early school years before making it as world-class athletes.

Their mothers, Pauline Booth and Cathy Okonta, have been instrumental in giving their sons life-changing opportunities, and introducing them to Special Olympics. In this interview with Coca-Cola, a founding partner of Special Olympics, they share some of the highs and lows of their emotional journey, and explain how the organisation has helped their sons achieve success through sport.

Pauline’s story

“Right before I had Paul I kept seeing people with Down’s syndrome, and I felt it was a sign I was going to have a child with Down’s syndrome too,” admits Pauline.

She lives on a farm with her husband, who has since retired and passed down some of the farming responsibilities to Paul, which includes driving a tractor.

“He can turn on the engine, put it in gear and drive on the farm here,” she says. “I wouldn’t let him on the road though. I’m not trying to hold him back, but I don’t think he’d be able to cope with it. He wouldn’t be able to understand what the other drivers are doing.” It’s clear she wants to give her son as much independence as possible, but knows there are certain boundaries. She goes on to say that he can drive a car but can’t tie his shoelaces.

When Pauline gave birth to Paul she didn’t find out about his condition until days after: “It was tough at first, because I didn’t know anyone with Down’s syndrome,” she says. Pauline recalls how her mother tried to reassure her at the time, by telling her she would be a ‘special mum’.

Paul Booth with actor and Special Olympics Great Britain ambassador, Colin Salmon

Pauline speaks openly about her son’s intellectual learning disabilities and the affect it’s had on the family: “Sometimes it’s difficult as they do hold him back, and it means he can’t do things with his brother and sister without planning. It’s like two straight roads for Wallace and Carly, but with Paul it’s a winding one. It’s different, but most of it is wonderful.”

Primary school was a particularly difficult moment: “I did nothing but fight with the teachers,” Pauline says. “It’s not that they didn’t want Paul to be good, they actually wanted him to be better than the other kids, but he could only learn by copying.” It wasn’t until secondary school that things began to improve. “It’s sad, but I like to think that we’re all more informed now, and it wouldn’t happen to another child what happened to Paul.”

A few years later Pauline spotted Special Olympics had a powerlifting team, and knowing that Paul enjoyed weightlifting at the gym, suggested he should try it. Paul, who had already won two bronze medals for swimming, embraced the idea and has since become a popular member of Special Olympics Great Britain’s powerlifting team. 

“I didn’t know when he was born how his future could be, so for it to turn out like this has been fantastic,” says Pauline, filled with pride. “I think it’s fabulous that Special Olympics is giving him all these opportunities to travel and meet other people around the world, it’s really boosting his self-esteem.”

“He’s always having weekends away to Bradford, Newcastle or wherever with the team, and has a fantastic time. It’s great that he’s learning to cope with a lot more things, like staying in a hotel by himself. It’s a real confidence builder, and I hope it enables him to voice his opinion a little more and that he continues to improve in the many things that he does in life.”

Paul returned from 2015 Special Olympics World Games with Gold in bench press, and 4th in squat and dead lift, earning him Bronze overall.

Cathy’s story

“I’m a single parent, and have been since Jordan was 10, so it’s been difficult and quite challenging at times,” Cathy explains.

She works as a full-time carer for Jordan, who has a younger sister, and lives near the coast in Little Hampton. “Like lots of autistic children, Jordan started drawing things that go round, like windmills and trains, so I knew from an early age that he was quite creative.”

Cathy Okonta with son, Jordan.

Jordan recently graduated with a Grade B for his Art GCSE, an achievement which Cathy is thrilled to share. She has nothing but positive things to say about Jordan’s secondary school, and strongly believes surrounding him with like-minded people helped him to open up.

“Since he was in infant school nobody knew what to do with him, so he’d just stay in front of a computer and play children’s games all day,” she says. “It was only when Jordan was taken away from that environment that I realised what he’d been missing, and that’s when I got angry.”

“He didn’t know how to communicate with other people, he found it extremely difficult talking to his peers, he didn’t understand what was being asked or said to him. He spent the whole time one-on-one with his teacher, and they wrapped him in a protective bubble.”

When asked how Jordan got into athletics, she credits Jordan’s coach and former P.E. teacher, Claire Moyle, who runs a Special Olympics training group in the local area. “It was about seven years ago, he was just eleven, and she mentioned that Jordan was really good at trampolining and swimming, and asked whether he’d be interested in joining the club.”

Cathy goes on to list the medals Jordan’s won since joining Special Olympics in 2010, and is eager to add that he also belongs to The British Athletics Parallel Success Academy, a pathway to the 2016 Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro.

She praises Special Olympics for helping Jordan prepare for the trip: “We’ve had extensive conversations with the head coach and meetings with people from Special Olympics, as well as weekends away to get to know everyone. It’s really helped make him more independent.”

“He still has problems with understanding people and what’s been asked of him, so he tends to follow more than he leads, but with every achievement he becomes more confident,” she says. “We have a big family and everybody’s behind him. It makes me feel as proud as any parent, if not prouder.”

“He really wants to go to Rio and compete in the Paralympic Games next year, so we’re doing everything we can to get him there. Whatever makes Jordan happy makes me happy, and I wouldn’t change him for the world.”

Jordan won Gold for his high jump at 2015 Special Olympics World Games in Los Angeles.