Photo of Nilasha by Reggie Jayasinghe

On July 25, approximately 7,000 athletes from more than 170 countries will take part in a worldwide event that hasn’t happened on U.S. soil for 16 years.

The 2015 Special Olympics World Games 2015 version will be officially launched inside the Los Angeles Coliseum before a boisterous throng that will include first lady Michelle Obama, and party to the music of artists like Stevie Wonder.

Nearly 400 of those athletes will represent the United States. And two of them live in Northridge — Nilasha Kurukulasuriya, 21, a gymnast and Luke Rose, 19, a swimmer. Kurukulasuriya will compete in floor exercise and the balance beam, while Rose has three events: the 50 meter freestyle, 50 meter backstroke, and the 4 x 50 meter relay.

They have both come through and medaled in competitions of local games put on by the Special Olympics of Southern California to be selected for the USA team. Each is thrilled by the selection.

“I’m happy; it’s been an honor. You have to be good,” Kurukulasuriya said.

“It’s my first time coming [to the Coliseum],” added Rose. “I’m gonna feel proud. I’m gonna sing the anthem.”

The World Games, featuring 25 different sports, run through Aug. 2. It’s already being called the biggest sporting event in Los Angeles since the 1984 Summer Olympics. Event officials are predicting up to 500,000 people will attend the Special Olympics during it’s nine-day run, cheering and celebrating a unique group of performers.

The athletes may be considered “different” by some standards due to the fact they have mental and/or intellectual obstacles to overcome. But there are no limitations on how hard they can train, or how much belief they have in themselves to accomplish their dreams.  

Yes, there will be medals awarded to the top finishers. But the Special Olympics is not about winners and losers. There are no endorsement contracts at the finish lines, and no one is promised face time with Jimmy Fallon, Jimmy Kimmel, or Conan O’Brian.

But there will be plenty of respect and admiration for all who partake.

Early Indicators

As younger children, Kurukulasuriya and Rose each gave their families clues as to why they would eventually gravitate toward their sport.

Rose’s father Ted, a freelance video editor, remembered how his son was always drawn to water.

“Even when we would go to the mall, he would try to get into the fountains; that’s how much he loved it,” Ted said. “We went through some therapies, including occupational therapy, and were told Luke was a seeker of sensory input — that water helps define the boundaries of where the body begins and ends.

“[Swimming] is something he wants to do. And every year he will remind me when swimming practice is starting, even before the (team practice) notice comes.”

Kurukulasuriya’s father Kushan, a chemical engineer, noted his daughter “had perfect balance” at the age of six. “She would climb trees, fences, even walls if we didn’t watch her. I was okay with the trees but walking on the walls we had to stop.”

Kurukulasuriya liked bowling and swimming as a youth and, after graduating from Chatsworth High School she continued to bowl after entering a Special Olympics Southern California (SOSC) regional program in 2010. But a couple of years ago she decided to become a gymnast despite never having participated in the sport.

“Gymnastics is more physical, more movement, than bowling,” she said. “It’s more dance, more tumbling. It’s fun. At first it was challenging — it was harder than I thought — but it’s fun.”

Kushan and his wife Niroshini, both originally from Sri Lanka, were uncertain initially about the switch. “We were worried she might hurt herself,” he said. “But when she decides to do something, that’s it.”

Kurukulasuriya did not compete in her first year of gymnastics as she learned some routines and became stronger. But she has become a top competitor in her age group, according to her coach Lisa DiNinno.

“She is very high-functioning,” said DiNinno, who trains Kurukulasuriya at the Junior Gym in Van Nuys. “She is very graceful as a person and gymnast. Her balance is great. She is definitely a fast learner. Very meticulous, very detail-oriented, and focuses well.”

Rose started swimming with SOSC Tri-Valley Regions swim team — which stretches from Burbank to Calabasas — eight years ago. He began racing in 2011, and has won a fistful of medals the past three years.

Competing in the World Games is “the biggest workload I’ve ever done,” Rose said. But he embraces the challenge. When people tell Rose he can’t do something, he promptly answers “Yes I can.”

Meg Patrick, a Tri-Valley swim coach who has been working with Rose at the Cleveland High School pool, calls her pupil “inspiring.”

“He always carries a smile on his face. He loves to learn. He works hard. And as a swimmer, he has innate ability,” Patrick said.

“He is a very good athlete and a very quick learner. … I coach novice level swimming with various kids. I use a lot of those [same] drills with Luke, and I can do them with Luke.”

Intellectual Disabilities

The first Special Olympics International Games took place in 1968. They were the vision of co-founder Eunice Kennedy Shriver — sister of President John F. Kennedy —  who abhorred the public’s treatment of people who, by definition, have “intellectual disabilities.”

“Intellectual disability” is a term to describe a person with certain limitations in cognitive functioning and other skills, including communication and self-care. These limitations can cause one to develop and learn more slowly or differently.

According to the American Association of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities, an individual has intellectual disability if he or she meets three criteria — an IQ below 70-75, significant limitations in two or more adaptive areas (skills that are needed to live, work, and play in the community, such as communication or self-care), and the condition(s) manifests before the age of 18.

Approximately 6.5 million people in the USA have an intellectual disability.  So do approximately 1-3 percent of the global population — as many as 200 million people.

Both Kurukulasuriya and Rose are fortunate. They live in stable, loving environments — both are in two-parent families and have older siblings. They are also highly motivated individuals with curiosities and goals beyond athletics.

Rose will soon finish studying at the Miller Career and Transition Center in Reseda. “It’s a great school,” he said. “They taught me retail, learning how to cook, the job center, learning how to garden, learning how to sell stuff online.” And this summer he’s been working in construction. “We’re building planter boxes. It’s really fun. I like doing things with my hands. I might try to build computers.”

Kurukulasuriya attends Pierce College, majoring in child development. “I know what I want to be: a pre-school teacher,” she said.

But first they will take on the world — in sports.

“Fun” will be the operative word for the two Northridge competitors. Winning would be nice. But both believe being part of the experience is more important.

“It’s about working hard, trying my best,” Kurukulasuriya said. “Keep cheering on my teammates. Meeting other athletes from different countries. … If I mess up or don’t remember steps, I’ll keep going.”

“It’s important to be there, be with your team and do what they tell you to do,” Rose said. And then he solemnly repeated the Special Olympics mantra.

“If I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt.”

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