Through more than two decades of involvement with Special Olympics, John David Haywood has cultivated an active lifestyle including swimming, cycling and team sports.
LAKE BUENA VISTA John David Haywood lives a pretty active life.
The Dr. Phillips resident is known to enjoy a 10-mile bike ride on occasion and tries to hit the pool at least once a week for a swim: he’s even done the famous “Lucky’s Lake Swim” in Orlando three times.
And although he enjoys his individual sports plenty, John David really enjoys participating in team sports such as basketball and flag football through Special Olympics.
At age 33, John David has been participating in Special Olympics for more than 25 years — including all 20 years since his family relocated to the Dr. Phillips area from western New York.
So, despite his disability, John David is as much a “weekend warrior” as anyone else.
“He’s hugely active,” said his mother, Sarah Haywood, speaking on his behalf because John David is hearing-impaired and non-verbal. “(Special Olympics) has just been awesome for him. It keeps him active and it keeps him involved.”
Laurie Chmielewski, training director for Special Olympics in Orange County, has had the pleasure of getting to know John David over the years and says he has blossomed through the program’s various offerings.
“His body language tells you a lot — he loves people and he loves to play sports,” Chmielewski said. “He’s really athletic.”
Through the years, John David has been an involved young man. In high school, he became the team manager for the Panthers varsity boys basketball team, first under then-coach Theo McWhite and also under current coach Anthony Long. He swam for a year on the swim team.
John David has worked as a dishwasher at Disney for more than 11 years, a job he performs three to four days per week.
But what he looks forward to most is his time on teams through Special Olympics. In 2010, he went to a national competition in Nebraska — a highlight of his athletic career. Most recently, as a member of the Central Florida Predators Unified Flag Football team, John David helped the team earn a bronze medal at the Special Olympics Florida 2016 State Fall Classic this past weekend at Disney’s Wide World of Sports.
The Unified concept pairs traditional Special Olympics competitors, or “athletes,” with volunteer peer teammates, or “partners.”
“The unified theme is that we live unified, so we play unified."
— Tyrone Adams, Lakeview Middle School
Within the five-on-five flag football games, each team will have three athletes and two partners on the field at all times. There are rules to keep the partners from dominating the game — they are not allowed to pass to one another, for instance — but otherwise, the only way to tell them apart is by the numbers on their jerseys. Athletes wear even numbers, while partners wear odd numbers.
The end product is that traditional Special Olympics athletes, many of whom would normally not have the opportunity to play team sports with peers without disabilities, get to do so. In turn, the peer volunteers get to interact and befriend athletes they normally might not do so with.
That result can be a learning experience for all involved.
“They are coached like the athletes,” Chmielewski said. “We play as a team, and they compliment each other.”
John David’s favorite sport is football, and so the emergence of the Unified initiative has been a valuable tool for him to not only keep active, but to make some new friends.
“They are very inclusive and very helpful,” Sarah Haywood said. “(The partners) make our athletes rise up.”
The program is successful across several age groups — from adults, where John David plays, to school-age, where there are two teams locally at Lakeview Middle School.
“The unified theme is that we live unified, so we play unified,” said Lakeview Middle teacher Tyrone Adams. “They’re helping one another and they’re talking to one another — it’s a win-win, man.”
For the Haywood family, in particular, Special Olympics has been a big plus for John David and a big help to his family — something they do not take lightly.
“This whole organization has been huge,” Sarah Haywood said. “So we take the time and effort to support them. We always try to give back to them because they have given him so much — lots of relationships, lots of opportunities.”
Contact Steven Ryzewski at [email protected].