A crowded room quiets as Parker Thornton approaches the podium. He has been tasked with motivating Special Olympics Athlete Health Messengers to commit to being fit every day by working out more, eating healthy, and cutting down on soda.
He starts his speech by proclaiming the three words he says to himself in the mirror every day, “I’m happy, I’m healthy, and I feel fantastic!” Parker let those familiar words calm his nerves at speaking in front of the large crowd. After the speech has concluded, the audience erupts into applause, motivated and encouraged to take on the challenge of living a healthy life.
Parker’s life didn’t start at peak health. As a newborn, he contracted viral meningitis and was hospitalized at Boston’s Children’s Hospital for five weeks, much of it on life support. He survived his first challenge, but the result of the viral meningitis left Parker with significant learning disabilities, which resulted in an anxiety disorder and depression.
When Parker was eight years old, he was introduced to Special Olympics New Hampshire when local families came together to start a ski team for children with intellectual disabilities. That introduction has led to more than 28 years of involvement with Special Olympics. Parker has won numerous gold medals in sports ranging from basketball, golf, skiing, and pentathlons. “I realized that Special Olympics was more than just sports; it taught me how to be a better man, a proficient communicator, and how to be a mentor to other athletes who have their own challenges. Special Olympics tells you how to speak up, get healthy to be a better athlete, and blossom gifts in yourself and others,” Parker said.
Parker recently had an opportunity to make his own life healthier. “I wasn’t happy with my body, and I was depressed,” Parker said. He signed up for a sprint triathlon, which motivated him to train for seven months. Parker lost 20 pounds and was able to go off prescribed medication. Seeing a positive change in his body and completing the triathlon showed Parker that even if it takes hard work, he can accomplish whatever he sets his mind to.
Parker has set his mind to tackling new challenges in the last few years. He speaks frequently on topics related to disabilities, Special Olympics, and the health disparities of people with disabilities. “Inclusive health is such a big issue. No one understands the health differences between people with and without intellectual disabilities. I want to motivate and get people thinking about how they can make changes to better the lives of people with intellectual disabilities,” he said.
Parker is now a consultant for Special Olympics International. He lead an Athlete Health Messenger training for a new cohort of athlete leaders who are tasked with taking the charge for equal access to health for people with disabilities. He co-edits a monthly health newsletter that goes out to thousands of recipients and is continuously tasked with being called upon to give motivational speeches. Speaking fills Parker with a sense of purpose. He wants to motivate others to see people with intellectual disabilities as part of human diversity and should be celebrated as such.
Parker is planning on accomplishing his next goal in 2019: attending professional stunt school in California. “It’s been a lifelong dream of mine to get trained to do professional stunts like you see in the movies,” he said. “I can’t wait to see what’s next.”