Mark Hanson remembers growing up, watching the Olympic Summer and Winter Games on television, and even attending the 2002 Games in Salt Lake City with his family. Never did the Calabasas resident think he would be on a big stage someday himself.
Mark, a tennis player, is one of six Southern California athletes representing Special Olympics USA at the 2019 Special Olympics World Games through March 21 in Abu Dhabi. The Games are being broadcast on ESPN’s host of networks throughout the week-long competition.
“When my mom told me I got picked, I’m like, ‘What?’” he said. “As it got closer to training camp [I kept thinking]: ‘I’m not just dreaming, right?’”
No, he is not.
In preparation leading up to the Games, he increased his reps by practicing with other teams. The extra time on the court is not a problem for Mark, who enjoys “the activeness” of tennis. In fact, it reminds him of another sport he enjoys.
“I actually did track in high school and I did lots of running,” he said. “So it just kind of takes me back to when I did track. It makes me feel great to be able to just move around and be active.”
The gift of sport and a chance to compete through Special Olympics have been a life-changer for Mark, who has battled through epileptic seizures since he was just 4 days old.
While he’s been limited in sports he can participate in, such as contact sports like football, the 32-year-old is appreciative when he thinks back to the day a local regional center first told him about Special Olympics.
“We looked up what I was able to sign up for and I signed up for tennis, which was my first thing that I did, and from there I just continued doing it because I loved the coach that I had and the team was just fantastic,” Mark recalled.
Away from the tennis court, Mark said he was ready to take in “anything and everything” presented to him while in Abu Dhabi. Right away, leading up to Thursday’s Opening Ceremony, one of those opportunities was being among a handful of U.S. athletes who joined Robin Roberts for a segment on ABC’s Good Morning America.
Mark will be competing in level 3 singles action, as well as level 4 mixed doubles with fellow Special Olympics Southern California athlete Krystal Johnson.
Regardless of the outcome, Mark is ready to enjoy the experience, just as he has continued to do since the first day he started with Special Olympics.
“I don’t want to ruin it by forcing myself to be in the mindset of, ‘You must be your best, or else,’” he said.
“I’m having fun and that’s kind of all that matters. Win or lose, we all have fun.”