Without Special Olympics I would not have met Georgia, Jim, Bree, Erin and Matthew from Illinois. Joelle from Maryland. Katy from New York. Kiera from Great Britain and Kester from Trinidad and Tobago.

One is a founding member of the cheer squad, SO Cheer. One works at Trader Joe’s. Another is a World Games triple gold medal cyclist. One sang with the band O.A.R. These friends along with the whole Special Olympics movement empower me to be a leader and to live a healthy life.

Ten years ago I created Special Chronicles, a nonprofit platform giving a voice to my fellow Special Olympics athletes and to others with intellectual disabilities. Through podcasts, stories and speaking I am helping create understanding for each of our differences. In giving my fellow Special Olympics athletes opportunities to present their stories I’ve motivated them to communicate their stories to a worldwide audience. You can give a listen at specialchronicles.com.

One contributor to Special Chronicles has been inspired to become better at blogging. Another has been inspired to continue their education. Countless viewers have been motivated to pursue their own dreams. In college I received Roosevelt University’s Matthew Freeman Award For Social Justice.

My friend Georgia, who has competed and traveled widely, has motivated me to expand my horizons.

Early in our friendship Georgia sat smiling in the front seat of her mom’s car sporting a crisp button-down shirt with the embroidered Special Olympics Illinois logo. I sat directly behind her wearing the same Illinois shirt. Georgia, her mom and I were stopped at a red light. Her mom snapped a celebratory photo just as we departed Normal, Illinois. We had just finished an Athlete Leadership Input Council meeting at the state headquarters for Special Olympics Illinois.

Since that day, Georgia has competed at her second USA Games, this time in New Jersey. I myself traveled independently to Los Angeles with media credentials to cover the 2015 World Games. Lately, I would give anything to go to the 2019 World Games in Abu Dhabi.

Friends from at least 10 other countries have allowed me to showcase their stories on Special Chronicles. We are all athlete leaders both locally and globally.

Read more about Special Olympics

The Special Olympics legacy: How it all began in Chicago

Special Olympics ‘5 for 50’: 5 athletes for 50 years — and a bonus

Soccer tourney, torch run and Chance the Rapper all part of Special Olympics’ big Chicago celebration

50 years, 50 videos: A visual celebration of the Special Olympics

The future of Special Olympics: Come join the inclusion revolution

For Daniel Smrokowski, chronicling SO athletes’ journeys is a study in empowerment

Miles, medals, an ESPY and a movie mark Loretta Claiborne’s Special Olympics journey

For one Illinois athlete, Special Olympics go beyond sports. They’re his voice.

Beating the odds: 1st Special Olympian in Chicago sports hall of fame

Special Olympics Eternal Flame of Hope Monument set for Soldier Field site

New book spotlights Eunice Kennedy Shriver, founder of the Special Olympics

One Special Olympics athlete leader I’ve had the opportunity to talk with is Kester from Trinidad and Tobago. During an emotional live podcast conversation we had he shared his experience of living in an institution to today working for Special Olympics International. He talked about how it does not matter how you look or what disability you were diagnosed with.

All that matters is that we focus on our abilities and our contributions in society. Together we are able to make a difference both on the field and throughout our communities. The beauty of Special Olympics is that the Special Olympics community is both local and global.

Healthy living for each of us as individuals is also at the heart of Special Olympics.

My cycling friends have motivated me to go on long bike rides through Chicago area forest preserves. During a recent excursion I rode ten miles out. I was exhausted. Friends who are training for upcoming competitions in various sports motivated me to continue the ride for another ten miles.

Recently I was featured in a blog interview with Chicago Cubs pitcher Kyle Hendricks which promoted Special Olympics Fit5 health guide. Kyle’s mention of yoga has sparked a new interest in me.

In addition to sports and healthy living, friendships also contribute to all around good health. Special Olympics has helped me foster friendships. In the end it truly doesn’t matter if we win or lose at our competitions. All that matters is that we are brave in the attempt and mutually support each other. The friendships that flow from Special Olympics can truly change the game for inclusion.

Now that it’s Special Olympics’ 50th anniversary all of my friends are celebrating the inclusion revolution. Join us and follow our lead towards a unified and healthful future. As my mom says, “If all the world were like Special Olympics, there would be no wars.”

Daniel Smrokowski was born three-and-a-third months premature and was diagnosed with learning disabilities and a severe language disorder. He is an award-winning columnist covering special needs stories. Daniel is the founder of Special Chronicles, a nonprofit media platform that gives respect and voice to people with special needs. Daniel is also involved as an athlete, global messenger and board member with Special Olympics Illinois. Follow coverage of the Special Olympics 50th anniversary at SpecialChronicles.com/SpecialOlympics50

This column is part of a special section commemorating the 50th anniversary of Special Olympics. Special Olympics staffers and Chicago Sun-Times journalists collaborated in the production of this section.