Local Heroes: Special Olympics Washington + Kirby Winfield

Courtesy Special Olympics Washington

Creating a level playing field for all.

If ever we’re feeling down about the affairs of the world, it helps to look toward the do-gooders who carry an optimism that affects us, too. We can’t help it; it’s contagious. We recently caught up with one such local—Kirby Winfield, Auction Chair and Board Chair Elect for Special Olympics Washington.


Q: How did your involvement with the Special Olympics begin, and what is your current role?

My daughter Kate was born in 2009, and surprised us by showing up with an extra chromosome; she has Down syndrome. Her older brother is a competitive athlete, and both my wife and I played competitively through college, so we knew she’d be getting out on the field as soon as she could. But we realized quickly her path in sport would be atypical, and were looking for ways to prepare for her future.

Meanwhile, my friend Warren Gouk was serving on the board of Special Olympics Washington (SOWA), and he introduced me to the organization. Also, my wife Alison served on the board (and is the current President) of the Down Syndrome Community of Puget Sound, and her fellow board member Becky Ronan’s husband Mike was on the SOWA board as well. So, I had Special Olympics coming at me from all sides!

I joined the board in 2013, and am currently the Auction Chair and Board Chair Elect.


Q: Of all the causes you champion, why is this one so important to you?

Because it’s a global platform that serves millions of people in need – but it does so at a hyper-local level. The impact is clear and measurable, and it serves a population that often gets left behind in the broader social justice conversation.

Special Olympics has been instrumental in showing me that Kate and her peers—rather than being left behind, socially isolated and pitied—can and should expect and receive what all of us want and deserve: a level playing field, figurative and literal; great coaching, in sport and in life; competition, health, friendship and community. Because those things most of us take for granted, have historically been out of reach for most intellectually disabled people.

Anyone who has participated in sports will tell you what they’ve learned about teamwork, friendship, overcoming obstacles, preparation, perseverance and the rewards of competition. I realized, if sport plays such a meaningful role in the lives of so many folks who *don’t* struggle with an intellectual disability, it can play a 10 times greater role in the lives of those who *are* vulnerable to poor health, social isolation and worse. The kids and adults who aren’t included, who don’t get to play, are the ones who need to play the most!


Q: Can you tell us a bit about upcoming events in our region (including the Games to be held here in Seattle in 2018)?

There are amazing Special OIympics sporting events all over the state every day. And in Seattle in July 2018, the Special Olympics USA Games will showcase the abilities of athletes with intellectual disabilities, promote the ideals of acceptance and inclusion through sport, and celebrate the transformative power of Special Olympics!

We are in bowling season right now (most popular sport), and our Unified Flag Football is our fastest growing sport! Our Western WA Flag Football “Turkey Bowl” is on November 20th at Sparks Stadium and will have 600 athletes and Unified Partners on the field!

On USA Games – Special Olympics Washington is expanding into several new sports and competitions so that our local athletes have an opportunity to qualify and compete in the 2018 USA Games. New sports are: kayaking, sailing, rowing, volleyball, gymnastics, tennis, triathlon and cheerleading. Special Olympics Washington will have 200 athletes from our state competing in the Games.

On the fundraising front, we are moving into Polar Plunge season (January – March). We’ll have eight locations across the state for individuals and teams to raise money and plunge into the frigid waters, all in support of Special Olympics Washington. It is through events like the Polar Plunge that Special Olympics Washington continues to provide year-round sports training and competition to 15,000 athletes in our state AND allows us to expand our programs even further!

Courtesy Special Olympics Washington
Courtesy Special Olympics Washington

Q: What do you find to be the most rewarding part of working for the Special Olympics?

The part that appeals to me as a startup guy is that there are real network effects at play—the more folks we serve, the more volunteers get involved and the more inclusion becomes pervasive in the communities we reach. It’s hugely efficient. The sports aspect is really a Trojan Horse; we use sport to enter the lives of our athletes, and then spread out to provide everything from leadership training, health and wellness support, mentoring and, most of all, a consistent, positive identity and pillar in their everyday lives.

The most rewarding part, though, is attending competitions like the Summer Games, and seeing thousands of people competing, cheering, struggling, sweating and emerging fulfilled—or better yet, going to a local Unified Sports competition, watching typical high schoolers playing side by side with their disabled peers in full seasons going after real titles! I took my son to a Special Olympics track meet once, and he came in skeptical, and walked away amazed, saying, “Those kids are faster than ME!” It’s as rewarding to see the attitudes and perceptions of the non-athletes change as it is to see the pride and performance of the SOWA athletes themselves.

Q: What can people in the Seattle area (or beyond) do who would like to get involved?

Seattle will host the 2018 Special Olympics USA Games, and our Special Olympics program in Washington is on the leading edge of inclusive sports. Yet here in the state, we only serve 15,000 of 180,000 intellectually disabled Washingtonians. Whether by volunteering, donating or just coming out and cheering, every person can make a huge difference for Special Olympics. Hit me up on Twitter @kirbywinfield if you want to get involved!

Courtesy Special Olympics Washington
Courtesy Special Olympics Washington

Q: Why is giving back to your community something you prioritize?

I believe a level playing field for all members of our community creates the best environment for a healthy, self-actualized citizenry. Clearly, when it comes to education, health and social justice and inclusion, many populations in Seattle and Washington State are starting from a distinct disadvantage.

And, I don’t think our government, or our free market, can be relied upon to level the playing field on their own; I don’t believe in the “fiat” approach to social change, and I am concerned about the vested interests of institutions.

So why give back? Because it takes individuals donating their time, talent and treasure to building sustainable platforms to lift up all our fellow Seattleites. Whether it’s Special Olympics, or the amazing work of the Washington State Opportunity Scholarship program, or the Rainier Scholars in the Central District, the Boys and Girls Clubs, Big Brothers and Sisters, the list goes on—that’s the true fabric of our community. And in Seattle, we’re blessed with a robust economy and a generous professional class that sees the value in this fabric and invests in making it stronger. I think doing that is a basic civic responsibility.

Q: Just for fun: Describe your perfect day in the PNW.

Up at 6 a.m. for a run! Breakfast with the family at Burgermaster in the U Village. Kate goes off to Special Olympics Young Athletes, and Alison and I play tennis by the lake. Then Seattle United soccer or City Baseball with my son, after which he and Kate hang out at the lake and go for a swim with my dad, while Alison and I grab drinks in Ballard at Jason Stoneburner’s place, then early dinner with friends at my good buddy Ethan Stowell’s Marine Hardware. We head back home, scoop up the kids for a Mariners game, and leave early to fall asleep in a pile watching the 9th inning in bed!