Kristen Arias said her experience in the Special Olympics has helped her gain confidence.
The 27-year-old Arroyo Grande resident suffered brain trauma as an infant after contracting a life-threatening strain of meningitis. She wasn’t expected to live.
But she persevered, and now Arias is one of 25 Special Olympics Global Messengers representing the United States along with two other San Luis Obispo County athletes, Rusty Davis and Matthew Swanson.
The Special Olympics World Games will be held in Los Angeles from July 25 to Aug. 2, featuring 6,500 athletes and 2,000 coaches from 165 countries. The World Games bring together athletes with a variety of intellectual disabilities every two years to compete in both individual and group sports.
Through her experience promoting the Games, Arias has met Michelle Obama, traveled to Disneyland and given speeches.
“I’m very happy and honored to represent my country,” Arias said. “Being special doesn’t make you different. It makes you special.”
Arias won’t be competing in the Games this year, but she has played a number of sports as a Special Olympics athlete — including in national competitions.
Over the past 15 years, she has participated in soccer, floor hockey, track and field, basketball and golf.
In recent months, she has given motivational speeches at various schools, clubs and organizations — writing her own presentations with some assistance from her mother, Patty Arias.
Besides Disneyland, her duties promoting the Special Olympics have taken her to Los Angeles and Pasadena, as well as locally to Morro Bay and the North County.
“At first, I was shy and afraid like a caterpillar,” Arias said. “But now, I’ve come out of my cocoon and I’m spreading my wings like a butterfly.”
Patty Arias said her daughter is smaller than most of the other athletes, yet unafraid of contact and getting physical with bigger players during competition.
“She’s only 4-foot-6, but her best distance in the standing long jump is 5’6”,” Patty Arias said. “In floor hockey, people see her out there and she holds her own. She loves playing her sports.”
Last summer, as part of an event at the Staples Center to announce the World Games and its ambassadors, Kristen Arias got to meet the first lady.
“She was tall, and pretty too,” Kristen said of Michelle Obama. “She was very nice. She smiled a lot, too. She wished me good luck.”
Pair of athletes
In preparation for competition, Rusty Davis and Matthew Swanson have been rooming together in a dorm at UC Riverside. They have played on softball teams in San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara counties for years.
They have been practicing with the co-ed softball team and touring Los Angeles, including a Thursday trip to Newport Beach.
Davis, a 43-year-old outfielder, lives on his own in downtown San Luis Obispo and works in hydroponics. He also has competed in bocce ball, swimming and bowling.
He has cerebral palsy, which inhibits some of his movements, but playing sports has encouraged him not to give in to his condition, he said.
“We’re not here to say we’re struggling,” Davis said. “We’re here to say, ‘We’re not going to give up.’ ”
Swanson — who works at Wal-Mart, sometimes goes by “Swandog” and lives in Avila Beach — said he was “surprised and excited” to be attending the World Games. The 36-year-old with autism plays outfield as well. In the past, he has pitched.
“We’ll be meeting people from all over the world,” Swanson said. “And we get to be here for two weeks. We get to brag a little bit when we come home.”
A particularly memorable experience that all of the athletes mentioned is the opening ceremony to be held at the Los Angeles Coliseum on Saturday.
Several stars will be appearing at the extravaganza, including Stevie Wonder, Avril Lavigne, Cassadee Pope, Cody Simpson and actor Colin Farrell.
“We’re proud to be representing SLO County,” Davis said. “I know my friends who work in SLO will be cheering me on.”