BY STEPHANIE CORKETT
After hours of climbing, Hanna Atkinson crested the top of Gray’s Peak, a 14,000- foot peak in the Colorado Rockies which is among a class of mountains known as “Fourteeners.” Hanna set a goal to make the climb after her brother Jeff’s death, and reached the summit in his honor.
Hanna has a long history of high achievement which she credits to her ability to set goals. She was a commencement speaker at her high school graduation, a Regional Emmy winner for a television news segment she co-hosts for a Denver station, and a long-time leader within the Special Olympics movement.
Reaching for lofty goals is nothing new for Hanna, a 22-year-old who lives in Colorado. “Goals help me stay focused and do my very best,” explains Hanna. She has been focused on achieving results since she was challenged by cancer at the age of two. After Hanna was diagnosed with leukemia, her family saw a remarkable fighting spirit emerge within the toddler. Her determination to beat cancer was an inspiration to the family and community, who all rallied in her support. In Hanna’s push through a lengthy treatment process, her mom, Colette remembers, “We saw Hanna’s strong will and it was evident that she could do anything.” Hanna survived cancer and in the process, her family came together in loving support of each other and with a commitment to provide Hanna with opportunities to grow and change perceptions of the special needs community of individuals.
Healthy living was a way of life growing up in an active family with three older siblings. Competitive swimming and skiing were the family sports and Hanna’s older siblings, Paul, Emily and Jeff set high standards for her, and her brothers and sister were positive role models from the beginning.
Hanna remembers being teased at school, particularly during middle school years. To counteract this challenge, the family sought a community where Hanna would be welcomed and accepted and where she would have the opportunity to participate in the competitive sports she enjoyed. Special Olympics Colorado was a natural fit, and Hanna joined the SOCO team when she was 13. She has participated in cycling, alpine skiing and unified basketball. Hanna’s dad, Tim, is an avid skier and cyclist and volunteers as a team coach and the whole family helps Hanna train and compete at her very best.
Hanna grew into her natural abilities to lead and motivate through her participation in sports. The confidence she gained and her enjoyment of the social experience led her to seek leadership roles within the Special Olympics committees. As a member of the Youth Activation committee and leadership board, Hanna shared ideas for creating inclusion within her high school and planned Special Olympic events. She initiated R-Word Project activities in her high school to raise awareness of the hurtful impact of language and to develop a more accepting environment.
Since high school, Hanna has trained as a Global Messenger for Special Olympics Colorado. She has made speeches to local schools and partners and to raise funds to support the program. She has shared her story with local and regional organizations in appreciation for their support of Special Olympics.
Participating with a local non-profit, The Healthy Me Project, Hanna was paired with a health and wellness coach, Mary Wallin, who inspired Hanna to reach even higher. As her fitness improved, Hanna decided she wanted to complete a triathlon. Of course, Hanna’s family became involved in her preparation. Together they learned more about sports nutrition and training techniques and as a result of this team effort Hanna completed not one, but two triathlons.
This September, Hanna and 17 other Special Olympics athletes from around the United States came to Washington D.C. to train as Health Messengers.
Health Messengers are Special Olympics athletes who serve as leaders in health and fitness within their Special Olympics and local communities. The program helps develop healthier lifestyles and advocates for the health needs of people with intellectual disabilities. As Health Messengers, Hanna and her peers will use their training to help them be better role models for fitness, inclusion and support preventive health programs within the Special Olympics community.
At the end of the training, each newly certified Health Messenger set a goal to complete a year-long practicum that puts what they learned to use in their local communities. Hanna chose to teach the importance of living a healthy life. “ I know there are lots of obstacles people face to getting healthy,” Hanna explained. “I want to motivate athletes to choose to make a change in their life. A change for the better can lead to a healthier, happier life.” As a leader for her fellow athletes, Hanna hopes to inspire personal change in her teammates with dialogue and leading by example. Hanna knows that every athlete might not know how to make healthy changes. The Fit5 Guide is a tool Hanna plans to use in her teaching. The Special Olympics booklet is a guide that provides athletes and their support teams with nutrition, activity and hydration tips along with training and tracking information.
Hanna Atkinson loves setting and achieving goals. With each new goal, she reaches further and climbs higher. Her newest goal is starting her own health business called ‘Wholeheartedly Hanna’ as a means of inspiring joy, acceptance and empowerment through public speaking engagements. And when this young lady sets a goal, she makes things happen.•
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Stephanie Corkett is Manager, External Health Communications, Special Olympics International