Inside her Sammamish home, Michelle Jay is gushing with excitement.
In just over a week, she will be headed to South Korea to compete for the United States in the Special Olympics World Games in cross country skiing, a sport she began only two years ago. The past weeks have been spent making final preparations and training-it will be Jay’s first trip outside the United States.
But when her plane finally touches down across the Pacific and Michelle Jay begins her quest for one of the top spots among the world’s best Special Olympians, it will be part of a journey much longer than one flight.
Elaine Jay remembers a time when excitement seemed a foreign emotion for her daughter. Michelle’s childhood was pleasant enough at home, with a doting father to go with Elaine and a pair of adoring siblings. But school and other social situations were often a struggle as misconceptions about the developmentally disabled were challenged and exposed as discriminatory.
“In her time in school, people weren’t as accepting of the disability and they didn’t recognize it,” she said. “It was much more difficult for her to work through those situations.”
The Americans with Disabilities Act was still more than a decade away when Michelle was in school and her father said one word could summate the attitude and pervasive mindset of society about the disabled in those years: “Ignorant.”
Without the level of advocacy and societal awareness individuals with disabilities receive today, Elaine hoped her daughter’s most basic needs would be met.
“I was just hoping, first of all, that she would be accepted as a valuable member of the community,” she said. “And that she could accomplish what she wanted.”
Michelle spent her childhood in Woodinville, graduating from Inglemoor High School before accepting a job at the King County Courthouse in Seattle she has held for the past 16 years after an acquaintance grew connected to her and offered a recommendation for the position. It was again at the urging of others Michelle joined Special Olympics, deciding to give cross country skiing a try after finding out only team members could go on an outing she wanted to attend.
Coach Jen Fry, who has spent nearly 20 years working with Special Olympics, said Michelle’s desire to improve and positivity have become a hallmark of the team. Despite being one of the relative newcomers among the 90 athletes, she was also elected as a captain.
“She has made amazing progress,” Fry said. “The volunteers love working with her. She is very positive and upbeat.”
Those traits also helped Michelle, who called Fry, “my friend and a cool person,” become one of only six athletes from Washington that will make the trip to Pyeongchang, South Korea for the 2013 World Winter Games, which take place from January 29 thru February 6.
“I have just seen her grow,” Elaine said. “She’s happy, she’s not a depressed, alone person. She’s out there enjoying life. To me, that is the most important thing.”
The trip will be the first abroad for Michelle and Elaine, though father Raymond spent time overseas during his military career.
As her skiing career has taken off- Michelle said she plans on eventually working to transition to competing in downhill ski races- her professional and personal lives have blossomed as well. After living with her parents her entire life, Michelle moved out on her own for the first time last year.
The first nine months with an empty nest have been challenging for Elaine, who said she was at first hesitant because of her daughter’s trusting nature. But the hesitancy has given way to motherly pride on a life-long journey that has seen Michelle maintain her own home, continue thriving at her job and now, have the opportunity to represent the United States at the World Games.
For Michelle, it’s just the next step in a journey that has brought her from reserved youngster to independent adult, and reinforces the mindset she has taken on skis and off.
“When I’m skiing, I just want to go forward,” Michelle said. “I don’t want to turn back.”