Special Olympic pioneer Grant Quinn recognized for his contribution
Grant Quinn, Gordon Llewellyn and Colin Bailey will always hold a special place in New Zealand sports history.
Quinn, an insurance executive based in Lower Hutt, and Llewellyn, a well-known identity from Lower Hutt with Down syndrome, put Special Olympics firmly on the map in New Zealand.
In 1982, American physician Dottie Fitzgerald, mother of 21-year-old twins with Down syndrome, attended a Rotary sports day in Tawa.
Fitzgerald noticed a swimmer with Down’s syndrome named Colin Bailey and was so impressed that she told the family about the Special Olympics World Summer Games being held in Baton Rouge, Louisiana the following year.
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Bailey was encouraged to join a swim club and when Quinn, who at the time was club captain for the Hutt Swimming Club, heard about Bailey, he immediately offered to help him get to Baton Rouge.
When Quinn contacted the International Gaming Bureau, he found that he had been trying to convince someone to establish the movement in New Zealand for years.
Quinn found three other very capable swimmers, Peter Spijkerman, Brent Busby and Llewellyn, and together with Bailey they became the first team to represent New Zealand.
Getting Llewellyn involved turned out to be a masterstroke. Known for his infectious smile, Llewellyn was a larger than life character with a fascination with the Magnum PI television character and a willingness to face anything.
Quinn was enjoying the Pan Am flight to America when he got a taste of Llewellyn’s unique personality.
Llewellyn quickly picked up the microphone in the cockpit and began to entertain the passengers.
“The next minute Gordon was asking, or should I say demanding, that everyone on board give the team three applause to wish them a good stay in Baton Rouge,” recalls Quinn.
Llewellyn finished her routine with an exciting haka for the passengers.
The team won four medals. Bailey made such an impression that Eunice Kennedy Shriver (the founder of the Special Olympics and sister of John F. Kennedy) paid particular tribute to him, describing him as a “rare and brilliant” director.
Attending the Games changed Quinn’s life. Captivated by the spirit of the games, with an emphasis on fun and participation, he returned to New Zealand with the determination to make the movement there.
He took a sabbatical from his insurance job and traveled the country spreading the message.
Everywhere he went he was greeted with enthusiasm and in 1985 the first National Special Olympics were held in Lower Hutt with 672 athletes.
Quinn was honored this week by the Hutt Valley Sports Awards for his contribution to community sport. Awards Chairman Ken Laban said Quinn will always hold a unique place in New Zealand sports history.
“The Special Olympics are is now part of mainstream sport, however, 40 years ago, it did not exist. Quinn created a movement that enabled an often overlooked group in our community to experience the benefits of sport.
Looking Back Quinn is proud of what he has accomplished and the joy the sport has brought to people like Bailey and Llewellyn.
“When I was young and growing up in the Hutt Valley, it was rare to see a person with Down’s syndrome walking in the streets. It was common for most to be institutionalized in places like Templeton and Kimberley.
“Fortunately, these places no longer exist. I would like to think that Special Olympics played a role in that decision. “
Although Bailey was the first Special Olympian, it was Llewellyn who quickly became the public face of the organization. Llewellyn died in 2014, aged 58, and Quinn spoke at his funeral.
“From time to time Gordon and I would talk to community groups and service clubs about SO. It was an easy task for me because Gordon was a very competent speaker. Normally I would give a brief introduction to what Special Olypmics was all about, and then I would turn it over to Gordon. In most cases, he had his audience in stitches. “
The media loved Llewellyn and Quinn had to get used to people recognizing Llewellyn and enthusiastically greeting him as a long lost friend, although he had never met him before.
Quinn and his wife Wendy are still involved with Special Olympics and he often hears from parents thanking him for helping to gain acceptance for their intellectually disabled children.
“Over the years, a number of parents have said that their children’s participation in the Hutt Swim Club when Colin, Brent, Peter and Gordon were members was invaluable to their education.
“The boys were an inspiration, they showed that winning isn’t always important. The most important thing was the effort and the pleasure they got from participating. “
Among the other pioneers, Brent Busby passed away a few years ago.
Colin Bailey is 59 and recently retired from Hire Pool after 30 years of service. He retired to care for his mother, Lee, after his father, Ken, passed away late last year. He enjoys 10 pin bowling and has represented Hutt Valley at regional and national events.
Peter Spijkerman, 58, lives in Paraparaumu in assisted living accommodation. These days Peter is not very active in the sport, but Quinn has said he enjoys a happy life.