Colin Bailey continues to be a role model and trailblazer for people with Down syndrome, 40 years after he became New Zealand’s first ever Special Olympics athlete.
On Monday March 21, Special Olympics New Zealand celebrates World Down Syndrome Day, recognising the wonderful achievements by thousands of people with Down syndrome across New Zealand.
Few of them however, would have as many stories to tell as Hutt Valley athlete Colin Bailey, who has attended every Special Olympics National Summer Games since its inception in 1985.
In December, Colin will again be attending the Freemasons New Zealand Special Olympics National Summer Games, his tenth games, where he will be competing alongside 1200 athletes in 10 sports across eight venues in Hamilton.
“Colin is an amazing person in his own right, but he holds a very special place in our community,” says Special Olympics New Zealand CEO Carolyn Young.
“Colin and the other pioneers showed the way for thousands of athletes who have followed his great example, so we are extremely grateful to him and those supporting him.”
Colin’s Special Olympics journey started in 1982 when he was spotted by visiting American doctor Dottie Fitzgerald who encouraged the talented young swimmer and his coach Grant Quinn to attend the Special Olympics World Summer Games in Baton Rouge the following year, as well as starting a New Zealand branch.
That fateful meeting changed both of their lives forever, and one year later Grant, Colin and his three team-mates found themselves on their maiden plane trip to the United States.
Colin, who recently turned 60, says he best remembers the stunned crowd in Louisiana, as the small, but boisterous Kiwi contingent burst into a haka at the closing ceremony.
More importantly, the young swimmer made an even bigger impression in the pool, getting a special tribute from Special Olympics founder Eunice Kennedy Shriver, sister of John F Kennedy, as well as praise from four-time Olympic champion John Naber who could see no flaw in Bailey’s impeccable technique.
Colin and his team may have returned with a bagful of medals, however his fondest memories are not from the pool, but from making new friends from all around the world.
“And that’s what it’s all about for Colin. Having fun and meeting people,” says Mum Lee who has been poolside for longer than she can remember.
Colin continued to attend every National Summer Games since 1985 and suggested his mum needs a bigger house for all his trophies and ribbons.
After decades in the pool, Colin swapped his swimming goggles for a ten-bowling ball.
“I wonder if that was to get away from his mum, because I was the swimming coordinator,” laughs Lee.
Whether in the pool or the bowling alley, Special Olympics is all about camaraderie, especially for Colin.
While many people with disabilities mingle with peers at school, residential care or at day activities, Colin worked most of his adult life at Hirepool.
“So Special Olympics was the only way for him to meet his peers and make new friends,” says Lee, who adds that Covid restrictions had been hard on her son, with Special Olympics training on hold for the past six weeks.
Once training resumes, Colin and his Hutt Valley team will start preparing for the National Summer Games in Hamilton, starting on December 8.
“He is not as good in bowling as he was at swimming, but he doesn’t care,” says his mother. “As long as he has fun and can meet new people.”