September 28, 2023
Special Olympics athlete Maryann Gonzalez

Photo: Norma Lopez Molina

"We don't want people to pity us. We want people to accept us."


Special Olympics athlete Maryann Gonzalez

Art Levy | 10/25/2019

My parents gave me up when I was 18 months old because I had too many medical problems, and it was too much for them to handle. They said I cried a lot. I was moved into a group home, where, when I turned 2, I was supposed to go into Sunland (a now-defunct mental health facility in Miami). My foster mom at the time took me there, and she looked at the place and said, ‘This is no place for you.’ She took me back home and raised me. She died in 1992. She’s the angel on my shoulder every day. She gets me through the rough times.

There are always barriers and people saying you can’t do stuff. Can’t is not a word in my vocabulary. I find ways around it.

I was coaching a volleyball team, and I had one athlete who could not serve the ball over the net. It’s the championship game. Game point. She comes up to serve — and she gets it over the net! It’s the winning point. Everybody went crazy. I was wanting to cry. I was in so much joy for her. She showed that she could do it. All the hard work we put in led to success. Seeing people achieve their goal, their dream. That’s what I love.

Some people are very rude, straight up. Some people can be very nice and see that you’re struggling and help you out. Some people can care less and walk right by you, like you don’t even exist.

Growing up was hard. I did not speak until I was 7. In school, I had to stay back in kindergarten for three years. They finally figured out that I needed tubes in my ears. And when they put the tubes in my ears, then I started hearing and talking.

School was not that good when we lived in Miami, but when I was 9, we moved to Sumter County. I got put in special education, and I had to fight for my right to be put in regular classes. I just didn’t want to sit and watch TV like they did at that time in the special-ed classes.

Sports, basically, kept me out of trouble. Growing up, I guess you could say I had somewhat of a behavior problem. It was very, very frustrating when I was young how people were not nice, and I think that’s what made me act like a bully. I figured if I could bully my way through life then maybe I could get where I needed to be, but Special Olympics taught me that being a bully is not the answer. I learned to be a good teammate. I learned to encourage others and be a role model.

I have a mental disability, which is controlled by medicine. And I have a muscle disability that is also controlled by medicine.

I drive to work, and I bought my own car. I’m paying for it myself. I enjoy driving, but I don’t like driving too far away from home. To get to work, I don’t go down U.S. 27, anymore. I go on less busy roads. I find it easier than driving on 27 because too many people on that road are pulling out in front of me and slamming on their brakes or not using their turn signal.

Anything I do, I put in the extra work.

My job is with Special Olympics, working in the sports department as an assistant. I’m working on stuff for aging adults, for people who are turning 40 or older, and finding ways to keep them engaged. That could mean sports or some kind of a health initiative to keep them from sitting on the couch, to keep them active in some way — a walking club, bocce ball, pickleball, anything like that.

I don’t always get the top medals, but I do pretty good. I think fourth is the worst that I’ve ever gotten. I’ve got hundreds and hundreds of first-place ribbons and not many third-place ribbons and a few second-place ribbons.

I’ve been in Special Olympics for 46 years.

My best thing that we do at the house is fish and shrimp night. We have it fried, which I know is bad for us because I’m being very healthy at this stage of my life, but I give in for fried fish and shrimp – and grits.

I’m working on writing a book. It’s going to be called “Don’t Tell Me I Can’t,” and it’ll be about the barriers in my life and how I have overcome them.

Sometimes, it feels like people ignore you because you have a disability. They shouldn’t ignore. They should encourage you to get involved, to join in.

I love to go on vacation. We’ve been on three cruises, the eastern side of the Caribbean twice and the western side once. For Special Olympics, I’ve been to Ireland and Greece, and I’ve visited the Great Wall of China.

Other people doubted me, but I always knew I was capable.

Yes, I had to start at the bottom and take all the prerequisites, so I could get where I needed to be. But this last May, I graduated with honors from Lake Sumter State College in computer science.


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