As a young girl, Natalia Nikitina lived in a Russian orphanage in the city of Penzar. One day, the children from the orphanage were taken to a puppet theatre. In the hall, Natalia’s heart leapt when she saw a little girl who looked just like her! She ran to her and started asking her questions and found out her name was Irina Nikitina. After a few minutes, the two girls discovered that they were sisters who had been separated.
" Special Olympics Russia has reached over 108,000 athletes with intellectual disabilities."
Soon after they were reunited, however, Natalia moved to the United States for school and Irina stayed in Russia. Irina was adopted by an aunt who would not let the girls communicate. But in 2009 Irina traveled to the US to compete in the Special Olympics World Winter Games in Idaho, and Natalia was able to go cheer her on. “I always liked to skate,” said Irina, “I tried to finish my homework as fast as I could. I showed it to my teacher, then took my skates, and ran on the rink. Then, one day the coach from the youth sports school came to our orphanage and asked ‘Who can skate?’ I was the first one to answer ‘Yes!’” Irina counts herself lucky. Her coach, Victor Nikolaevich Pavlov, helps her improve her skating but it also her “mentor in life.” Natalia decided to become a volunteer for Special Olympics Russia after seeing Irina compete in speed skating and how happy the sport made her.
Special Olympics Russia was re-established with the help of a Christmas Records Grant in 2000. At that time, people with intellectual disabilities (ID) in Russia were misunderstood and lacked access to good care. People with ID were often sent to institutions where conditions were poor. The government was the main source of money for Special Olympics Russia, but there was not a lot of money for sports groups. In addition, Russia is a huge country so the Special Olympics offices are very far apart and travel is expensive.
In its first years, Special Olympics Russia’s main goals were to structure the programs, create a plan for the future, establish effective rules, and build a team of leaders. In 2000, Special Olympics Russia was chosen as a Priority Program. Since then over $1,675,000 in Christmas Records Grants has helped them reach their goals.
Special Olympics Russia now has over 60 regional branches which continue to grow to connect villages four or five time zones away. The Program has reached over 108,000 athletes with ID and held 4,500 competitions across the country in 2015. This is thanks to the continued support of the Christmas Records Grants in addition to the hard work of the volunteer staff. Special Olympics Russia is also growing Unified Sports which now includes almost 2,600 athletes and 1,700 partners. This program has been helped by legendary Russian Olympic athlete Alexey Nemov.
Olympics Russia athletes have also gotten the chance to attend international
competitions in places like Korea, Kazakhstan, the Netherlands, Slovenia, Austria,
Puerto Rico, and Cyprus. Daria Zakharova, Assistant Sports Director for Special
Olympics Russia, says this gives them the opportunity to see the world and to
grow. And for Irina and Natalia Nikitina these competitions offered a chance to
bring a family together, no matter the distance.