“I was first introduced to Special Olympics at the same time Lizzie was. Her first Special Olympics team that she ever competed on was associated with the school department, so there were a lot of siblings that were involved. My mom brought me to one of Lizzie’s first practices and encouraged me to be involved as a volunteer. I got bit by the bug right away.”
That bite is what led Special Olympics USA assistant golf coach Adam Johnson to where he is today, helping to prepare athletes and Unified partners for competition in the Special Olympics World Games Berlin 2023. At the age of 12, he frequented the sidelines of Special Olympics events, cheering on his 8-year-old sister Lizzie Johnson. In their hometown of Warwick, Rhode Island, the Johnson siblings experienced inclusion at work in their community.
“My first sport was track and field,” remembered Lizzie. “I did track since I was 8 years old. I did a little bit of bowling, but my favorite sport is swimming.”
In school, Lizzie’s was one of the first classes to take part in the Special Olympics Unified Champion Schools® program. Today, there are more than 8,300 Unified Champion Schools across the United States, bringing together students with and without intellectual disabilities on sports teams, through inclusive student clubs and by fostering youth leadership. In all they do, Adam and Lizzie demonstrate what it means to be unified.
For a few years, Adam served as Lizzie’s coach in athletics. Regardless of that title, he is best known within the Special Olympics Rhode Island community as “Lizzie’s brother.”
“I’m often referred to as ‘Lizzie’s brother,’” said Adam. “Here’s this guy that’s a coach, I am now working for the Special Olympics office in Rhode Island, but at the end of the day, I’m Lizzie’s brother and that’s probably the best title that I get to hold.”
Now the interim chief program officer for Special Olympics Rhode Island, Adam’s entire career up to this point has been motivated by his involvement with Special Olympics. In his most recent chapter, he worked as a licensed clinical social worker in psychiatric mental health, specializing in individuals with autism and developmental disabilities. Prior, he had worked as a group home manager and as a therapeutic recreation coordinator.
“Every employment decision I’ve ever made has been motivated by wanting to create a better environment and community for this population, which I never would have been introduced to if I didn’t get to have Lizzie as a sister or grow up in the home that I did,” said Adam.
From his first Special Olympics practice, Lizzie’s coach was adamant that they each have their own experience within the organization. Instead of chaperoning or coaching Lizzie solely, the door was opened for Adam to volunteer with more athletes in different sports. Forging his own path, Adam would go on to attend the 2014 Special Olympics USA Games as an athletics coach, the 2022 Special Olympics USA Games as an assistant head of delegation and the Special Olympics World Games Abu Dhabi 2019 as a Unified partner in bowling. As unique as their experiences have been, the two continue to spend time together on shared interests, whether that be shopping, trying a new restaurant or going to the movies.
“I like to do crafts, I like to watch movies,” said Lizzie. “I like to paint canvases and rocks.”
Lizzie works in the commissary at the Naval Station Newport, serving lunch and dinner to service members. With a gluten allergy, she has mastered the art of preparing meals for herself and for others. Her social calendar is full, as she spends her evenings in the company of friends and family.
“She is very lucky to have a village for her back home,” said Adam. “They take care of her and have helped develop her, giving her a great social life. That all started with her feeling that sense of inclusion and belonging within Special Olympics.”
At the heart of that village, there are Lizzie’s friends, Lizzie’s teammates, Lizzie’s coaches and, most importantly, Lizzie’s brother.