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Special Olympian sails away with bronze in Berlin (UM News)

July 12, 2023

James Thigpen, representing the U.S., sailed into Special Olympics history, winning a bronze medal at the 2023 World Games in Berlin.

Thigpen lives at Wesley Glen Ministries, a residential community serving adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities, in Macon, Georgia. It is a ministry of the South Georgia Conference of The United Methodist Church.

His sailing partner is Phil Martin, volunteer director of the Sailing Center at Lake Tobesofkee. He and Thigpen have been sailing partners for more than 20 years. 

Martin sailed with Thigpen as a Unified partner. Unified partners are participants without intellectual disabilities who have trained with an athlete as a team for a long time.

Approximately 7,000 Special Olympic athletes from 190 countries competed in 26 sports during the June 17-25 Special Olympics World Games 2023.

Thigpen and Martin were one of only two teams from the U.S. selected to compete in sailing at the Berlin games. The other U.S. team was from Texas.

In an interview with United Methodist News, Thigpen and Martin talked about their adventures at the World event.

“I am proud of myself for getting third place,” Thigpen said. Martin is quick to remind him, “That’s third place in the world, James.”

Thigpen proudly recited a phrase used at the 2023 Berlin Special Olympics: “Let me win, but if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt.”

Thigpen, 42, started working with Martin when he was 14 years old. The pair sail every Saturday.

“James gets very excited when the boat goes fast,” Martin said. “He is very focused, and he lets me know if he thinks I am not letting the boat go faster. We have been sailing so long together we understand what needs to happen.”

The U.S. delegation to Germany included 160 athletes and 30 support staff.

The competition is similar to a car race, Martin explained. The first boat around the course wins. The boats must maneuver around a series of buoys both into and against the wind.

The boat in which the pair sailed at the games was very different from the one they use at home, Martin said. “It was twitchy,” he said.

“It was fun,” Thigpen said. “We flipped the boat over.” 

Laughing, Martin said, “We got right back in and kept sailing. We weren’t the only ones who flipped over.”

Martin said he and Thigpen took every opportunity to explore Berlin. “We averaged about 20,000 steps a day,” he said.

James loved meeting people from other countries, Martin said, and he made many friends. 

James was especially excited to meet Tim Shriver.

Shriver is the son of the late Eunice Kennedy Shriver, who started the Special Olympics in 1968. He is president and CEO of the Special Olympics International.

Another highlight was a dinner for all the U.S. athletes, hosted by the U.S. Embassy.

“It turned into a great impromptu dance party,” Martin said.

Stacy Starr, a Special Olympics coach who traveled with Thigpen, said it was an amazing experience.

“Families were given credentials that provided free transportation all around the city and free entrance to many palaces, churches and exhibits,” she said. “The German people were so kind.”

Thigpen has lived at Wesley Glen Ministries for 17 years. He said he loves it because “it is a Christian home.”

“At Wesley Glen Ministries, James is a faith leader among his peers,” said LuAnn Osteen, director of residential services. “Each resident found comfort in knowing he felt their prayers from his home in Macon, Georgia, all the way to Berlin, Germany.”

Cameron Bishop, president and CEO of Wesley Glen Ministries, said James “is a shining example of how each of us is gifted with God-given talents and abilities, that when cultivated, can lead us to achieve far more than imagined.”

Kelly Roberson, assistant to Bishop David Graves and director of ministries/communications for the South Georgia Conference, said Wesley Glen Ministries is a “ray of sunshine” in the conference.

“God is working in and among the staff and residents each and every day, and it is exciting to see.

“We are so proud of James and every resident of Wesley Glen for the contributions they are making in their community and for the ways they shine the light of Christ.”

One of James’ housemates, Andy, told everyone he could about James going to Germany, said Charleen Brice, direct support professional at Wesley Glen Ministries.

Macon Mayor Lester Miller visited Wesley Glen Ministries while James was traveling. On July 18,  Miller will issue a proclamation for James in honor of his winning a Special Olympics World Games bronze medal in sailing.

Andy told him, “The man you came to see is not here. James is in Germany!”

“James is our star,” Brice said. “He truly made us proud.”