Until she turned nine, Claire Pearson did not speak.
Now, at age 25, she looks back fondly on her childhood. She grew up playing netball, swimming, eating chocolate ice cream and cuddling her Minnie Mouse toy.
She has always loved her sport, idolises number one female tennis player Ash Barty and has a sport-loving family, but she never thought she could find her own place in the sporting landscape.
That was, until she discovered Special Olympics Australia.
Special Olympics Australia is a non-for-profit organisation who provide accessible sport opportunities for people with intellectual disabilities, with training, coaching and competition prospects across the country.
For 12 years now, Pearson has immersed herself in Special Olympics Australia programs in swimming and alpine skiing, and, with the support of her family and coaches, has found her voice and confidence to achieve greatness, something that she, as a little girl, could not have ever dreamed.
A swimmer for Swimming Australia at Cronulla Swim Club amongst her local South Club, Pearson has found her home within the Special Olympics Australia Community.
Just some of her highlights include winning five gold medals at the Trans-Tasman Games in 2016 and being named Female Swimmer of the meet. She also represented Asian-pacific and won three gold medals and a silver medal. Pearson was also named Co-Captain of the NSW Swim team and mentored female athletes in 2018.
But it’s not just the accolades that the freestyle swimmer and skier has achieved, as Pearson has taken on a role as ambassador and Athlete Leader, inspiring many out of the pool.
“Leaders take on a role as mentors to their fellow athletes and are ambassadors…taking the opportunity to do public speaking, to ensure that those with an intellectual disability are included whenever possible,” she said.
And these positions of leadership require great conviction, with the 25-year-old now able to speak publicly and share her story.
“I have the opportunity to speak at my local high school and the Police Academy, asking them to sacrifice and donate to Special Olympics Australia.”
And she wouldn’t be able to find her strength if it weren’t for her loving family and supportive coach system across both swimming and skiing.
Mother Louise has been a Special Olympics Australia swimming coach for nine years, while sister Julia has coached for two and her father, a lifeguard, also organises the skiing camps for the team.
“They never miss a big meet, they’re always there to cheer me on,' says Claire.
“At the big [swim] meets, Mum and Julia wear big sunglasses so I can see them in the crowds!"
And Pearson reveals that it’s her parents who she draws her self-assuredness from: “In swimming, it’s my mum. In skiing, it’s has to be my Dad.”
Principal Partner NAB, who have been on board with the organisation since 2018, have worked on driving the conversation around social inclusion for people with intellectual disabilities.
The push is echoed by Special Olympics Australia Chief Executive Officer, Corene Strauss, who knows how impactful sport can be on people just like Claire.
“We want to raise awareness…of the opportunities…to develop physical fitness and improve their quality of life, Strauss said.
For Claire’s mum, Louise, that exact confidence, conversation and opportunity that NAB Special Olympics Australia has provided her daughter has been a marvel to watch.
“Claire’s growth over the past 12 years at Special Olympics Australia has been nothing short of amazing," admits Louise.
"I remember a 12-year-old who used to turn her back on the coach, so she’s come a very long way.
“Trips away without Mum and Dad promote independence and the Athlete Leadership Program promotes confidence.
“My favourite part of supporting Claire is sitting back every six months and you see a change in her growth in confidence and independence.”
Pearson’s story is an exceptional one in the Special Olympics Australia community. It hasn’t been an easy journey, but if you asked her now, she’d tell you it was all worth it to get to where she is now. And her mum Louise agrees.
“Claire’s voice is ready to be heard loud and clear and I’m so proud to be her Mum,” Louise said.
“You’re going to make me cry!” Claire giggled.