On July 10, Entertainment Tonight anchor Nancy O’Dell participated in the World Summer Games’ Unified Relay torch running ceremony to kick off the Special Olympics — and it was one of those days.
You know the kind: full of memories so special you are certain you’ll look back on it for the rest of your life and smile.
Running alongside her fellow torch run captain, Glee‘s Lauren Potter, O’Dell knew then and there the experience would change her for the better. And Potter’s resemblance to someone very dear to O’Dell’s heart seemed to magnify the moment exponentially.
Like Potter, O’Dell’s Aunt Ellen was a woman with Down syndrome. And, like Potter, Ellen was a woman with tremendous tenacity and spirit.
“[Aunt Ellen] grew up in Union, South Carolina, going to high school football games, just standing on the sideline and wanting so badly to be a cheerleader and wanting so much to be a part of a team. Fortunately, Union was a great community, and the cheerleaders would let her cheer along on the side or let her try and do the routine,” O’Dell said.
Still, Ellen was never able to officially join the squad and, all these years later, that has been a major motivator for O’Dell’s involvement. “I wish the Special Olympics had been around and available when she was young because she would have loved it,” O’Dell said. “That’s what she was all about — she just wanted to be included and respected and be a part of something, and that’s what Special Olympics does so well.”
According to the veteran TV correspondent, serving as a Global Ambassador for the Special Olympics enriches her life in unexpected and humbling ways. Like, for starters, introducing the opening act for the ceremonies alongside a sweet young girl with Down syndrome.
“English was actually not her first language, so she was doing this speech in front of these thousands of people not only with an intellectual disability, but also with a language barrier,” O’Dell recounted. “She finished it off perfectly, though, and then just stuck a hand up in the air like, ‘Yes, I did it!’ And that’s what it’s all about — for them to be able to feel this sort of accomplishment and pride.”
Or, for instance, getting to appreciate firsthand the incredible athleticism involved. “You go out there and you’re like, ‘Oh my gosh!’ These are people who have trained at these sports. These are Olympic athletes,” O’Dell said, adding with a laugh, “I got the badminton birdie slammed on my side of the courts many times!”
Naturally, then, O’Dell encourages anyone to get involved in the Special Olympics. But it’s not just about seeing what the participants get out of it. It’s about the profound effect those participants have on the volunteers.
We can all learn from them, insists O’Dell. “They won’t come out and judge what somebody’s wearing,” she said. “They don’t come out and exclude anyone. They are about love and inclusion all the time. You can learn from them, so you actually get so much from being a part of it.”
It was her support for the Special Olympics and Best Buddies International (a nonprofit dedicating to creating opportunities which positively impact the lives of the people with intellectual disabilities) that led O’Dell to bring the advocacy of these groups to the attention of her executive producers at Entertainment Tonight.
They have since hired two “buddies” as employees. “Sometimes they are the best employees because, like I said, there’s no hidden agenda there. They just want to do a good job, and so they’ve made tremendous employees at Entertainment Tonight,” O’Dell said.
Many common perceptions about people with intellectual and developmental disabilities are quite antiquated, particularly in regards to self-sufficiency.
“I think a lot of people don’t realize that they’re working and thriving and attending schools and universities,” she said. “And it’s not just people with Down syndrome. It’s people with different spectrums of intellectual and development disabilities, such as autism and Asperger’s and other forms.”
O’Dell, for one, definitely noticed a shift in her own perspective.
“I left all of these events feeling so much better. Not just because I felt like I had done something good and been a part of a great cause, but because I felt like, ‘Hey, this is how we should be.’ They’re so loving. They’re so nonjudgmental. They’re so about including everybody. It’s really just cool to see.”
But for O’Dell, the moment with the most personal gravitas came in those first few moments with the bubble blond actress from Glee.
“When Lauren and I first got the torch and she screamed out of excitement when they handed it to her — which kind of signified the beginning of everything — it just reminded me of my aunt and how she would get so excited when she was asked to participate,” she said. “I started tearing up and I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, I have to walk this whole leg. I can’t be crying the whole time!'”
Of course, that wasn’t the only moment during the experience for which O’Dell was grateful for waterproof mascara.
Admittedly, she got a little choked up when she received her first hug from the first athlete at the opening ceremonies. “There’s something different about a hug that you get from people with intellectual disabilities… it’s a genuine love that is there,” she said.
You feel the difference in the hug, even if you’ve never met the hugger. “With every single hug that you get from them, there’s no pretense. There’s just love,” O’Dell marveled. “It feels good.”