A world away, Simon Van Giesen swims in international Special Olympics

Simon Van Giesen practices for the Special Olympics USA Games, held in Seattle in July 2018. Photo: Stephen Brashear Simon Van Giesen practices for the Special Olympics USA Games, held in Seattle in July 2018. Photo: Stephen Brashear

Last summer in Seattle, Simon Van Giesen swam in his first national Special Olympics competition, winning a bronze medal. Now Simon is 7,500 miles away, competing for Team USA at the Special Olympics World Games in Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates.

“It’s pretty cool,” Simon, who attends St. James Cathedral Parish, said before joining Team USA athletes and coaches on a March 6 military transport flight from New York to Abu Dhabi.

Running March 14–21, the games feature more than 7,000 athletes with intellectual disabilities from 170 countries, competing in 24 summer sports. There is an 11-hour time difference from Seattle, but the games are being broadcast mostly live by ESPN channels (see the coverage schedule).

Simon, 25, was diagnosed with autism when he was 3 years old; he began swimming with Special Olympics and other teams about a decade ago. (Read his profile in the June 2018 issue of Northwest Catholic.)

At the World Games, Simon is competing in four swimming events: 200 freestyle, 100 freestyle, 100 backstroke and 100 freestyle relay. (The swimming events are being held in nearby Dubai.)

What are his chances of winning a medal? “The longer the strokes, the better the chance,” Simon said, noting that his coach had been having him work on his sprints.

This is the first Special Olympics World Games being held in the Middle East/North Africa region, according to Special Olympics. The event includes 2,500 coaches and 20,000 volunteers; among the estimated 500,000 spectators cheering on the athletes are Simon’s parents, Shawn and Debi Van Giesen.

Special Olympics World Games
Simon Van Giesen stands in front of a logo for the Special Olympics World Games in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. Photo: Courtesy Debi Van Giesen

“It’s going to be amazing,” said Debi Van Giesen, who works for the Archdiocese of Seattle. “The World Games — wow. It’s going to be fun to watch him.”

“We’re so proud of him and everything he’s been able to accomplish,” she added.

Besides swimming, Simon may be competing in ballroom dancing, with his mom as his partner. They originally were slated to do a ballroom dancing demonstration, but then learned a competition was planned instead. So they had to put a competitive routine together at the last minute.

Before the games officially opened, the athletes participated in cultural exchange activities, such as going to dinner with local athletes’ families, Debi said. “Food is a huge thing over there. Hospitality is huge.”

As part of Team USA, “we want to be an example of good sportsmanship and showing people that we’re good people and we want to learn about other cultures and be respectful of other cultures and have the opportunity to meet people,” she added.

As a history buff, Simon said he was looking forward to not just the athletic competition, but also exploring the region’s history.

Asked if he thought there would be any Catholic churches in Abu Dhabi, Simon said he remembered seeing on the news recently that Pope Francis “was in the area doing Mass” (the Pope visited the UAE in February). “I’m thinking I’m going on 50-50,” Simon said of the odds of coming across a Catholic church. “That would be pretty awesome.”

Jean Parietti

Jean Parietti is the local news editor for NWCatholic.org and features editor for Northwest Catholic magazine. You can reach her at jean.parietti@seattlearch.org.