MARY Davis has an autographed picture of herself and Nelson Mandela that bears the following tribute from the genial South African ex-President: ‘if your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader’.
In 2003, the Kiltimagh native did just that, as the inspirational leader for what was arguably modern Ireland’s proudest moment and, some would say, the fruition of our new-found self-confidence and maturity as a nation: the Special Olympics World Summer Games.
The statistics bear testament to the enormous organisation involved in that spectacularly-successful event. Over 7,000 athletes came from 150 countries, accompanied by 3,000 coaches and officials and over 28,000 family members and friends, while on the ground in Ireland, some 30,000 volunteers in 177 host communities ensured the smooth operation of the Games. Over 65,000 spectators attended the opening ceremony in Croke Park. Remarkably, it was the first time the event was hosted outside the US.
Since that time, Mary Davis has been honoured with a quite frightening number of honorary degrees and achievement awards in recognition of her extraordinary work, but she believes the seeds of her success were first sown in her upbringing and schooling in east Mayo.
“I may have left Mayo, but Mayo has never left me,” she explains, animatedly. “Mine was a very happy childhood, and I certainly feel my time in Mayo has influenced my actions in later life. Growing up in Kiltimagh and at school in St Louis’ Convent, there was always a prevailing attitude of looking after your neighbour, of taking care of each other.”
These are undoubtedly qualities that, thanks to her inspiring leadership, came to the fore all over Ireland during the Special Olympics, when small communities the length and breadth of the country came together in a way that enriched everyone’s lives - athletes, volunteers, host families and spectators.
As well as leading from the front in making the Games so successful, Mary Davis played the key role in bringing the games to Ireland in the first place. She was first appointed CEO of Special Olympics Ireland in 1999, but she had travelled a long road to get there.
After finishing secondary school, she graduated as a Physical Education teacher from Leeds University. From there, she won a scholarship to the University of Alberta in Canada where she completed her academic studies.
After returning to Ireland, she became PE Co-ordinator with St Michael’s House in Dublin, an organisation that caters for people with learning disabilities. It was then that she first volunteered for Special Olympics Ireland. In 1985, she worked as Events Director when the European Special Olympics were held in Dublin. By 1989, she had become National Director.
Between that time and her appointment as CEO in 1999, she served with what is now recognised as her trademark passion and dedication on many Special Olympics international bodies. Undoubtedly, her impeccable track record on both national and international bodies was a major factor in bringing the Games to Ireland.
She is also quick to praise Mayo’s involvement in 2003. “Mayo’s reaction was amazing, really amazing,” she says. “It was a special welcome.”
We are all, of course, familiar with the success of the 2003 Games, but what has been their legacy in Ireland? “The aftermath of the Games has been overwhelmingly positive,” says Mary Davis. “They created opportunities that could never have taken place without them.”
In many ways, the success of the Games has changed irrevocably the attitudes of Irish society toward the abilities and possibilities of the intellectually disabled. Through sport, she believes that intellectually disabled people can not only develop technical sporting skills, but also, and just as importantly, develop new personal skills and abilities such as self-confidence. In other words, Ireland has come to redefine the intellectually disabled in terms of what they can do as opposed to what they cannot. “We are all the beneficiaries of this,” she says proudly.
Special Olympics Ireland has now set itself the target of increasing the number of athletes in its programme from 8,000 to 14,000, and will be sending 100-130 athletes to the 2007 games in Shanghai, China. Will the Games be as successful in a country with such a massive population?
“I hope so. I’m sure it has to improve Chinese attitudes towards the intellectually disabled; look what it did for a small country like Ireland!”
As well as all this, Mary was recently appointed chair of a Task Force on Active Citizenship by An Taoiseach Bertie Ahern, who was unequivocal in his praise: “She succeeded in generating such a tremendous response from ordinary citizens to an extraordinary experience that was Special Olympics 2003. This is one example of the type of voluntary effort and community participation which sustains a healthy and vibrant society.”
In a further affirmation of her special status in this country, Mary Davis was chosen by the President, Mary McAleese, as one of seven personal appointees to the Council of State, the body established by the Constitution of Ireland to advise the President of Ireland in the exercise of many of her discretionary, reserve powers.
Mary Davis doesn’t just talk the talk either: she ran the New York marathon last November, raising €80,000 for Special Olympics Ireland in the process, and before that, she achieved the ambition of a lifetime when she climbed Mount Kilimanjaro with her husband Julian. “I’d love to do Everest,” she says without batting an eye. You suspect this is merely a matter of when rather than if.
And, lest we forget, this is a mother of four, whose youngest child is preparing to do the Leaving Cert next year. In the modern world, many people struggle to balance the work-family-leisure time equation, successful women especially so. How does she find the time? Moreover, how does she find the energy?
“I want to emphasise that anyone can do it, anyone,” she says firmly. “Of course it requires thinking, planning, personal commitment and most of all the will to do it. But it can be done.”
In keeping with the positive approach she brings to every aspect of her life, Mary Davis says we can learn a lot from the many special athletes she deals with on a daily basis.
“People do forget how to feel good in this modern age, sometimes we neglect to use the best in ourselves. The athletes I encounter are always happy, joyful and full of fun. There is something to learn in that for everyone. We must all be given an opportunity to use our talents in this life.”
Special words from a special leader.