Being a volunteer at the Games changed my life

Even the taxi drivers gave lifts for free

Jenny Hughes, a volunteer with the Special Olympics in 2003

Jenny Hughes, a volunteer with the Special Olympics in 2003


I signed up to be a Special Olympics volunteer before the World Games in 2003 because my cousin, David Johnstone, was selected on Team Ireland’s basketball team.

I was a delegation assistant liaison for the Games, which basically means I was assigned to a team – Benin – for the duration of the games. I met them at the door of the plane, went to their host town in Tubbercurry, Co Sligo and stayed with them until they boarded the plane to go home. It was an incredible two weeks.

We had a magical few days in Tubbercurry and they didn’t want to leave for Dublin.

But when the games began, it was just so exhilarating and inspiring and exhausting, and all at the same time.

If you were going anywhere in your uniform or with the team, people were so welcoming. Shops gave the athletes gifts. We were offered public transport and the toll bridge for free. At one stage, even a taxi driver gave us a free lift. Everybody was cheering when we walked down the street.

I walked with Team Benin in the parade of athletes into Croke Park and that was a huge experience. We were the first African team to go into the stadium and there was a massive welcome.

I remember telling the Benin head of delegation that Nelson Mandela would be at the opening ceremony and she looked at me like I was mad. Then he walked out on the stage and she had to sit down. She couldn’t believe someone like him was there.

She kept saying how important it was for their movement in Benin to have such a huge figure in Africa at the games.

Getting involved
There’s a Special Olympics swimming club in Donaghmede near where I live in Dublin and, after the World Games, a neighbour rang to see if I’d be interested. I started to get into the pool to help and after a while I started to do coaching exams.

I hadn’t swum in years but I got back into swimming myself as a result. I did a competitive sea swim in San Francisco twice in a fundraising effort for Special Olympics – something I wouldn’t have even remotely considered doing before this.

Being involved with Special Olympics has changed my life.

I went to the 2005 Winter Games in Nagano in Japan as a volunteer and was a coach with Team Ireland for the 2007 Special Olympics World Games in Shanghai and again in Athens in 2011.

When I got involved as a volunteer I never, for one second, thought I’d end up as a coach. I’m not particularly sporty although I do get incredibly competitive on behalf of the athletes. I have made many friends at the various games. In fact I just emailed two friends I made in 2003 through Special Olympics to meet for dinner to mark the ten years.

I would absolutely recommend getting involved with Special Olympics. It’s challenging, yes, and it’s exhausting, but you will always walk away with far more than you put into it. And above all it is tremendous fun. I’ve frequently gone home with a pain from laughing.

In conversation with Alison Healy