While sitting at the Opening Ceremony of the 2018 SONC Fall Tournament, Sammy Flores heard his name ring out through the speakers. He couldn’t believe it, but he had just been named the 2018 SONC Athlete of the Year. The athletes and fans filling the stadium instantly cheered and congratulated him. Surely, many looked on with admiration, and more than a few wondered: What led him to this prestigious place? What is his secret to success?
At first glance it may be easy to assume the answer. Flores is an accomplished athlete with a long Special Olympics career. He is a Global Messenger, a three-sport athlete and is well known on the Wake County soccer fields where he started as “everyone’s little brother.”
Since then, Flores has matured into a mentor to other players who is committed to his teammates and to helping other athletes develop their skills. Though all of these things undoubtedly show how deserving Flores is of the prestigious award, according to him that’s not what got him here and it’s not what Special Olympics is about. Not even close.
Flores’ journey with Special Olympics started when he and his family toured Olympic Town at the 1999 Special Olympics World Games held in Raleigh. As he watched athletes from across the world laughing and celebrating together after a long day of competing, Flores knew this was something he wanted in which he wanted to take part.
“Sammy just fell in love with the idea of Special Olympics,” his dad, Tony, recalls. “He was in elementary school and we were still learning about the opportunities out there for kids with autism.”
Having World Games right in their own backyard highlighted to Flores and his family just how much there is for people with intellectual disabilities. Not only was it a new opportunity, it was on a global scale!
“I think it was ice-skating and then speed skating that really caught my attention early on, and then soccer,” Flores shares.
Back then, Flores was reserved, quiet. He hadn’t discovered sports yet and not many people could have foreseen what a dedicated athlete he would become. The idea of competition, of being a part of a team and, admittedly, of winning gold medals captured his imagination.
These many years later, he is committed to a sport every season — speed skating, athletics and soccer, and when he doesn’t have a sport to train for, he is training as a competitive runner!
“He has an amazing way of looking at things,” Tony explains, “He doesn’t believe anyone who says he can’t do something. He just goes out and does it!”
As a result, Flores has accumulated accolades. Starting as a sprinter and winning gold, Flores now has worked his way up to marathons, even completing the Marine Corps Marathon. In 2014, he was invited to USA Games as one of the first triathlon athletes, and won a gold medal!
Not only has Flores developed as an athlete, but he credits sports for transforming his social life too. He has a wealth of friends, mostly due to his time with SONC, and a particular point of growth has been public speaking. As a Global Messenger, he has learned to speak up and speak out on behalf of SONC athletes, giving speeches to hundreds of people.
“I can’t imagine life without SONC,” Flores says, “Ten years ago I would never have gotten up in front of people to share my feelings and experiences.”
Along with his personal growth, Flores’ career has also evolved. These days his focus isn’t solely on competition. Flores is focused on giving back to his favorite organization.
“Special Olympics has given me so much. I try to spread the word about all the good that it has done for me. I try to support the other athletes. Help others stay focused on sportsmanship and learn the importance of good communication,” Flores explains, “So often, in the moment my teammates and I are really focused on the competition, we want to get out there and win gold!”
However, over his long career with SONC, he has learned that it’s about so much more than the gleam of gold around his neck.
“Really, I think it’s most important to enjoy the moment, to stay focused on enjoying the wonderful people around you.”
So, what is his secret to success?
“It’s the people, the moments when you are competing side by side, and you realize that your teammates have become your family.”
It’s not the dedication to training or love of competition, not the medals or accolades. For Flores, it’s the people he’s met along the way. And he is dedicated to ensuring that he can help others come to love Special Olympics for all the same reasons.
Congratulations on being named the 2018 Special Olympics NC Athlete of the Year, Sammy!