Reach up L.A.! These words continue to light up my heart whenever I recall the remarkable events I experienced at the Special Olympics 2015 World Summer Games in Los Angeles. Never in my dreams did I see myself participating in a sporting event this big or on the global stage: 6,500 athletes from 165 countries!

It all started sometime last year with an email from the Public Affairs & Communication (PAC) team at the Coca-Cola office in Nigeria, calling for volunteers for the Special Olympics 2014 National Games in Lagos. This call was part of the Coca-Cola Ambassador program, which inspires Coca-Cola employees to be ambassadors of the brand and also active good citizens in their communities. 

At this stage, my perception of people with special needs was biased, as I did not see how it was possible to have logical communication with them. But I liked the idea of supporting them to enjoy the excitement of sports. Since I enjoyed playing football in school -- although I ended up mostly on the bench -- I signed up to join the Unified Soccer team.

Unified Soccer, one of Special Olympics Unified Sports, is an inclusive 7-aside game featuring players with and without intellectual disabilities. The event is designed to promote acceptance and reduce discrimination and stigmatization that have become huge barriers to social inclusion.

The mandatory practice and bonding sessions which qualified the Partner Athletes to play in the games required me to make lots of sacrifice, including extra hours to keep up with deadlines in the office and loss of personal time at weekends. But it was more fun than I expected. Unfortunately, I did not get to play in the national games, but I had so much fun cheering from the sidelines and watching with wonder the amazing quality of dribbles, tackles and shots by the same athletes some label as “disabled”. 

By some odd stroke of luck, I was informed a few months later that I had been chosen as a Partner Athlete for the Special Olympics 2015 World Summer Games in Los Angeles. As it turned out, a colleague who was chosen could not make the trip. That was how I found myself, joining another colleague, Emmanuel Ekomabasi, on the team. I was excited and terrified at the same time for so many reasons.

I was alarmed by the schedule of activities. I was to spend over a month of working hours away from my job, including a few weeks in a pre-games camp in a different city from where I worked, then two weeks in L.A. for the games. For a few days I remained confused and unsure if I could actually sacrifice that much time from my work which I was addicted to. Thanks to Emeka Mba and my manager, Gbolahan Sanni, I was motivated to make the right decision.

The intense drilling and fitness activities in the pre-camp training was the welcome party I barely anticipated. Surprisingly, I began communicating and bonding with all the athletes sooner than expected. We ate and prayed together and trained in the mornings and evenings. We were without a doubt determined to take on any challenge at the World Games. And we looked forward to the trip with trepidation.

Being my first time in the United States, I was thrilled and overwhelmed when our team arrived at the Houston airport to connect to L.A. Upon arrival in L.A., we were treated to a warm red carpet reception at Loyola Marymount University. The magnitude of applause we received from spectators and Special Olympics officials made me instantly realize that we were no ordinary sportsmen. We were indeed Olympians.

For the next three days we were hosted by the beautiful and wonderful community of Hawthorne in Los Angeles. The host town program preceding opening ceremonies included a series of events to welcome and celebrate participants and introduce them to community members and familiarize them with their new environment. After the program, we were relocated to the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA).

The opening ceremony on July 25 was a truly remarkable event lit up by fireworks that spelled out the message “REACH UP L.A.!” The event featured many top dignitaries and celebrities, including U.S. First Lady Michelle Obama. The central theme was acceptance and recognition for everyone with special needs anywhere in the world.

An incredible moment during the games was when I had the opportunity to meet and interact with Muhtar Kent, chairman and CEO of The Coca-Cola Company. It was an uncommon privilege to meet such a great man. He charged us to keep up with the great work and wished us the very best as Coca-Cola Ambassadors. It was also astonishing to later receive a signed copy of the picture I took with him.

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Unified Soccer Team poses with medals 
We, Nigeria’s Unified Soccer team, won all our group stage matches and defeated Germany 1-0 in the semifinals, making our way to the finals against Russia. It was a very intense game that ended in penalty shootout after a 2-2 draw. We took off our shirts and screamed with jubilation in a manner I cannot describe when we scored our last penalty kick to win.  

Today, I am indeed honored to be an Olympian and a gold medalist and also to have made remarkable friends and brothers. Reach up L.A.! Reach up to someone special...and that may just be the beginning of a lifetime experience for you.

It was incredible to see how so easily the misperception and prejudice which I acquired over the years about people with intellectual disabilities evaporated in just a couple of weeks. And only because I had the opportunity and made the decision to reach up and reach out to embrace them as team mates. 

From this experience I have learned some powerful life lessons to help me on my journey to becoming a better person. I have learned that it is incredibly wrong to judge a person’s worth simply by the label society puts on them. From feeling the quality of soccer my teammates played, I have learned that disability is a barrier that only exists in the mind. I have learned that persons with intellectual disabilities are truly remarkable human beings with innate abilities, dreams and a drive. They see the world in a truly unique and beautiful way. Once the initial barrier of communication can be crossed, you will be astonished at how truly loving, caring and friendly they are. I will always be grateful for this lifechanging opportunity to interact and bond with many of these athletes at the games.

Experiences like this make me appreciate the true meaning and value of being a Coca-Cola Ambassador, and I would like to urge everyone who has the privilege of working for this great company to take some time off to volunteer for any of the many causes our company supports but, preferably, for the Special Olympics movement in your community. Spread the message: Reach UP, Humanity!