Sarah Huynh wasn’t always the best swimmer. Her mother, Hoang Leclerc, said because of her daughter’s intellectual disability, it took Huynh nearly five years to develop the coordination.
But after competing in the Special Olympics for 18 years — winning more than 80 medals — the 31-year-old swimmer from Novato now represents the United States, joining the 6,500 athletes from 165 countries to contend for gold in the Special Olympics World Games in Los Angeles. She is the only athlete from Marin and among only four from Northern California.
Athletes ages 8 to 71 will compete in soccer, basketball, volleyball, tennis, track, roller skating and other sports over nine days. About a half-million spectators are expected to attend, including Olympic gold medalist swimmer Michael Phelps and diver Greg Louganis, basketball great Yao Ming and even first lady Michelle Obama, who will open the event Saturday at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, site of the 1932 and 1984 Summer Olympics.
“She told me, ‘Mom, my friends say they hope I don’t forget them when I get famous,’” Leclerc said, laughing.
Her mother said she wanted her to learn everything she could, so Huynh first competed in Special Olympics when she was 13. She entered in a variety of sports, such as volleyball and tennis, but “when she finally joined the swimming team she loved it,” Leclerc said.
She will compete in the 50- and 100-meter freestyle as well as the 4-by-100 freestyle relay in Los Angeles.
The first Special Olympics World Games in 1968 drew about 1,000 U.S. and Canadian competitors to Chicago for an event designed to celebrate athletes with intellectual disabilities.
“It was probably a little on the small side,” said Olympic icon Rafer Johnson, who welcomed those competitors in 1968, “but it had an unbelievable amount of enthusiasm.”
And Johnson, who won a gold medal in the decathlon at the 1960 Olympics, will be there to welcome them again.
“It’s going to be the largest event Los Angeles has hosted since the 1984 Summer Olympics, and the largest sports-humanitarian event in the world this year,” said Patrick McClenahan, president and chief executive of LA2015, the nonprofit bringing the games to LA.
Musicians Stevie Wonder, Avril Lavigne and others will perform at the opening ceremonies. The event is similar to the Olympics that inspired it, but with a few tweaks.
Athletes will be placed in divisions based on age and skill level so, for example, a 10-year-old sprinter doesn’t wind up running against a 25-year-old. While the top three finishers will receive gold, silver and bronze medals, everyone will receive a participant’s ribbon and a chance to stand on the victory platform.
The games were created by President John Kennedy’s sister Eunice Kennedy Shriver as a way of allowing people with intellectual disabilities to enjoy fuller lives. After years of holding a smaller version in her back yard, she took them international in 1968.
From that humble beginning, they have become much more, said Dustin Plunkett, an LA2015 board member.
“It’s about life-saving experiences for people. It’s about learning to be the best person you can be,” said Plunkett, a former Special Olympics athlete.
Huynh can relate.
She was training at the University of California, Riverside through Friday, where she stayed with her coach Sarah Call and teammates until the games began Saturday.
“It feels good,” she said. “I like it. It’s fun.”
Huynh was certainly enjoying the experience. She went on a boat ride and was in a parade with her team, and she was ready to head to Los Angeles.
Leclerc and her husband, Marc Leclerc, and her daughter, Samantha Hasler, will join Huynh Saturday.
“The Special Olympics is the best thing to happen for Sarah,” her mother said. “We’re so proud of her.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.