Daina Shilts slays the slopes during her gold-medal run, Schladming, Austria 2017.
Photo courtesy of Special Olympics Wisconsin.

Daina Shilts slays the slopes during
her gold-medal run, Schladming, Austria 2017.
Photo courtesy of Special Olympics Wisconsin.

I Am Included

By Daina Shilts

Daina Shilts slays the slopes during her gold-medal run, Schladming, Austria 2017.
Photo courtesy of Special Olympics Wisconsin.

I Am Included

By Daina Shilts

Imagine your world without anyone wanting or having interaction with you. Going through your daily life feeling as if people didn’t even see you – you felt invisible. Or when they did turn their attention to you, it was because they felt a need to bully you. For years, that was my world.

Let me begin by giving you a brief glimpse of myself, and sharing my labeled difference. I have a rare syndrome called CFC. I was born with some physical abnormalities, including being a bit slow in growing, being petite in size and having an Intellectual Disability (ID). I’ve had some procedures/surgeries during my life to help with the physical problems that developed, and a lifetime of working on some challenges that come because of my ID. My personality has been greatly shaped because of my ID. And, so that the last sentence doesn’t sadden you, I’ll continue with – I am happy with who I am!

When I was young I was accepted by my peers. I knew I was different from my peers because I was really small and I always had to go to separate classrooms to get help with daily basic studies like math, reading, spelling and few other things. Although it was hard to keep up with my peers, I always tried my best.

When entering Middle School everything seemed to spiral downhill. I started to get teased and pushed around daily. This worsened with time. I didn’t know why I was always getting picked on except that I was a little different. I was bullied, pushed down, shoved in a locker a couple of times, my pants were even flushed down the toilet once. But believe it or not, that wasn’t the worst. Worst was being called retarded on a daily basis. That hurt me the most– it was very emotionally deflating. That daily environment “shrank” me. I wanted to disappear, didn’t talk more than needed and shied away from everyone.

Are you asking, “Why didn’t I get help?” I tried, but no one (staff) would admit to seeing it, so they didn’t do a thing about it. Because I often went home crying, my parents visited the school trying to help me. You would think things would have improved the situation, but in ways it made it worse.

While in High School, I tried to fit in anywhere. I couldn’t soar academically, I didn’t have any artistic gifts, I was too small or uncoordinated for school sports and definitely couldn’t hold a tune. I would love to say that my school experiences are recalled as “great” – but as you’ve read they were far from that. I was repetitively told by peers and my special education teacher that I was never going to amount to anything, that I would never be successful, and that I would never go to college. Partially wanting to prove them wrong, I took some secondary classes at Eau Claire Tech College and now have my CNA and I am sign language certified. I earned good grades and have pride in knowing, yes, I did attend college!

Daina Shilts celebrates her record snowboarding run during the gold medal ceremony in Schladming, Austria.
Photo courtesy of Special Olympics Wisconsin.

Shilts, herself a multi-sport athlete, reports on Paddle Boarding, which debuted as a new sport at the 2018 USA Games.
Photo courtesy of Special Olympics Worldwide.

Wonderful memories and thoughts come from my family! My parents always tell me how much they love me and always give me hugs and comfort. I have always been “normal” in their eyes.

I joined Special Olympics when I was 8-years-old. Within Special Olympics, well let’s say, I could be 100% myself, and I never had to worry about getting teased. I was just like everyone else. Special Olympics included me and I was so happy to be included in such a wonderful environment. I was discovering I can learn and even excel in some sports.

Growing with the help of Special Olympics, now I’m often heard saying “thank you” to those bullies from my teen years, they partially made me who I am today: standing up for those who don’t, can’t, or haven’t found the voice on how to be strong like ME!

In 2013, I competed in my first Special Olympics World Games as an advanced snowboarder in South Korea. It was at that competition, seeing all the other athletes, that I found that I do have a voice, that there are many people just like me, and they have stories just like mine. It was then that I realized my “place” in Special Olympics. Special Olympics has surrounded me with positive experiences, snow-sport skills and most importantly, the most compassionate mentoring coaches and volunteers helping me to develop into the adult I have become.

In 2017, I competed in the Special Olympics World Winter Games in Schladming, Austria, winning two gold medals. The first in Giant Slalom and the second in the Super Giant Slalom where I had the fastest time of both men and women in both the Ski and Snowboarding categories, and also broke a record! I also raced in the Special Olympics UNIFIED dual slalom, partnering with my Idol, Hannah Teter. I was treated equally by ALL involved. What a huge eye opener for me. I WAS INCLUDED! I couldn’t be happier, and Hannah and I have become good friends. Together we have raced in the X-Games Dual Slalom Unified event. I was included in the most extreme yearly snow competition – we medaled all four years!

My journey includes being recognized with an Honorary ESPY Award, and, most recently, I had the most amazing, no unbelievable, breath-taking honor of being the first female with an Intellectual Disability to host as an analyst on a major network in the United States. As an ESPN analyst, I was on the other side of the mic and I got to include athletes in my broadcast as part of the 2018 Special Olympics North American Games.

I was nervous at first to share my story, I believe I’m getting better at it, trying to pay it forward so to speak. I have seen and have been told that I am changing people’s mindset and am making a difference in THEIR world too. I have even been told that I am an idol to others and that I am an inspiration to not only Special Olympics athletes, but to people without an ID. This is mind-blowing for me! I can’t believe I am positively changing the lives of others.

Daina Shilts is the first individual with an Intellectual Disability to provide analyst commentary on a major network, pictured here with co-host Kevin Negandhi, ESPN, during the 2018 USA Games.

Photo courtesy of Special Olympics Worldwide.

In case you’re not sure, inclusion matters. In my eyes inclusion means that people with and without an Intellectual Disability are coming together without worrying about our differences, not only in sports, but also in the classroom, in the work field and most importantly, it means you are making friends. In 2018, when I had the opportunity to go to a Unified Champion School, I saw students with and without an ID doing everything and anything together, in classes, eating lunch and even playing sports. This is life-changing.

Take the time to include people with an ID by talking with US, walking with US, sitting down at the lunch table with US. I know that doesn’t seem like much, but trust me, it means the world to anyone with an ID. In the famous words of Tim Shriver, Chairman of Special Olympics, “When in doubt Choose to Include!” If more people lived like this, I believe our world would be much more inclusive to anyone and everyone.

A few thoughts in ending (actually, I think it’s just my beginning). I have always tried to “fit in.” Not standing on the sidelines of life, but being included. Yes, I realize I am different, but by being included I have found there IS a role for me in our world – I do make a difference and so do all people – give all people a chance to be included.

Lastly, I would not be here today if it wasn’t for my parents and their never-ending support, and the inclusive, positive environment of Special Olympics. Thank you for reading.

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Daina Shilts is a Special Olympics athlete and an elite snowboarder from Neillsville, Wisconsin. She has competed in two Special Olympics World Games and four X Games with her Special Olympics Unified Sports partner, Olympic gold medalist Hannah Teter. She has earned numerous medals, including three golds at the 2017 World Games in Austria last March, and a medal in each of her four X Games competitions.

In July 2017, Shilts participated in the ESPY Awards, where she was one of just eight Special Olympics athletes selected to share the stage with former first lady Michelle Obama as Special Olympics founder Eunice Kennedy Shriver was posthumously presented with the Arthur Ashe Courage Award. Shilts also received an honorary ESPY for her contributions to the Special Olympics movement. Last year, Shilts also received the inaugural Inspire Award from Finish Line Youth Foundation, the philanthropic arm of shoe and apparel retailer Finish Line. She was later asked by Finish Line Youth Foundation to be the spokesperson for Finish Line’s 2017 holiday campaign, where they featured her in promotional materials in more than 560 stores nationwide. In recognition of her many athletic achievements and her tireless work on behalf of inclusion, Shilts was invited to the state Capitol in November 2017 to receive a Hometown Hero Award from the Wisconsin State Assembly. In 2018, Shilts joined ESPN’s broadcast team in Seattle as an analyst for the Special Olympics USA Games.

Daina Shilts
Special Olympics Athlete
Special Olympics Analyst for ESPN