When in doubt, choose to include: Daina’s ESPYs diary

July 26, 2017 Blog, Featured

Daina (blue dress) and her fellow athletes on stage at the ESPYs with Michelle Obama and Tim Shriver

Daina and her fellow athletes on stage at the ESPYs with Michelle Obama and Tim Shriver

On July 12, 2017 Special Olympics founder Eunice Kennedy Shriver was honored with the prestigious Arthur Ashe Courage Award at the 2017 ESPYs. Former first lady Michelle Obama presented the award to Special Olympics Chairman Tim Shriver, who accepted it on behalf of his mother and the entire Special Olympics movement. 

Special Olympics Wisconsin athlete Daina Shilts of Neillsville was given the honor of attending the ceremony as one of just eight Special Olympics athletes to be on stage during the segment. She was flown out to Los Angeles for the star-studded event and the following is her account of her ESPYs experience. It has been lightly edited for clarity.

My ESPYs Report

By Daina Shilts

When I first heard about going to the ESPYs from my mom, Jan Shilts (who heard it from my coach Dean Glaze), I was like, “Wait, what? No way. No way. Really?” I was going to the ESPYs! Me, a little girl from a little town in Wisconsin was going to the ESPYs. Hehehehehe, wwwaaahhhooo!!! I was so excited. Of course I was going to watch it on TV but I never expected that I was ever going to go. I felt like the happiest person in the world when I got the news.

Later on, I was getting interviewed for a local news broadcast since I was going to the ESPYs as a Special Olympics athlete. And I was cool with that. While my interview was taking place, my coach Dean Glaze, Tommy Jaime from the head office in Madison, and I walked around the farm. Then we were done… so I thought! We all went back inside and the news anchor said we have to “mic” you up for one more thing. And Tommy told me we have one more surprise for you. You are one of 25 Special Olympic athletes in the country who will be getting an honorary ESPY. I was like, “Wait – what? No way. Are you serious? Really? Really?” I think I might have said “really” a lot I was so, so, so, so, so excited. I could not believe it! I was getting an ESPY award – me, Daina. Like all the other famous athletes I was getting an ESPY award!!! Hehehehehehe!!!

When the day to leave for LA FINALLY came I had the pleasure of traveling with my mom, which meant a lot to me because I knew that this was going to be a trip that I would never forget. We flew out of Minneapolis and the flight seemed like it took forever because I was so, so, so excited.

My mom and I stayed at the J.W. Marriott in LA which was AMAZING! What a famous hotel. When we first got off our airplane we went to get our luggage and there was a man in a nice suit holding a sign with my name on it. Hehehe, I really felt like a celeb. Then he got our bags and drove us to the hotel.

We got to our hotel with our driver who drove us all the way to the front doors. We got to see some people from Special Olympics International, which alone was exciting. Then I found out that I had the honor of going to the Humanitarian Awards, which was unbelievable. The highlight for me was I got to stand right next to the red carpet watching all the celebs getting their pictures taken. I was so excited just to see all the famous athletes. It was also a surprise to me that I got to take a picture with just about every one of the sports people and I even got an interview with WWE. I had a few people come up to me and say, “Are you Daina Shilts?” And I said yes. Their reply was:  “I know who you are – I watched you!” It was either the X-Games or the World Games. But to know that famous people knew me was like UNREAL!

Daina with Katie Couric at the Sports Humanitarian Awards

Daina with Katie Couric at the Sports Humanitarian Awards

When we got up the day of the ESPYs, that is my mom and I, we ate of course. Then we had a little bit of time before we had to go to rehearsal. You’re thinking, “Practice?” Yes, we had to practice walking on stage a few times because it was going to be live TV. That lasted about an hour. Then we got a “little” something to eat which was a smoothie, so technically, to drink. Lol.

Then we had the fabulous pleasure of getting our hair and make-up professionally done, which made me feel like a queen – seriously. It was so cool!!! They did my make-up and I even had fake eyelashes put on! I have never had any in my life. They did my hair too. I didn’t even recognize myself at first. Lol. Then we went to put our dresses on. Mine was a simple but beautiful long blue dress with a little sparkle and a little skin showing – not much though. I put on my heels – yes, I said “heels,” not snowboard boots.  Haha! And it was off we went to meet everyone downstairs to go to the red carpet and I was very lucky to be in a dress because it was HOT out.

Daina in her fabulous blue dress with other seven athletes and Tim Shriver on the Red Carpet

Daina in her fabulous blue dress with her fellow athletes and Tim Shriver on the red carpet

The red carpet was amazing – like being on the snow, except for a lot less clothes. Haha. It was the sweetest, coolest thing ever!!! Let’s just say it’s unbelievably amazing. I was excited to meet ALL the celebs but who I really wanted to see of course was THE Aaron Rodgers!! And not only did I get to meet him, I got to give him a hug and take a few pictures with him!!!  Hehe. I had lots of conversations with lots of celebs but, what stuck out to me the most is that Aaron Rodgers “knew” who I was and knew that I was from Wisconsin and we talked about that for a little while.

Daina and THE Aaron Rodgers on the Red Carpet

Daina and THE Aaron Rodgers on the red carpet

I got to sit in the audience and watch the first half of the ESPYs. It was so cool! Then, we got pulled away for a “meet and greet” with the former GREAT first lady herself, “Michelle Obama!!!” That was really, really cool. She was so nice to all of us and gave us each a hug. Then it was back to our seats we went to wait our turn to go on stage.

I knew that there was going to be a video and I knew that I was going to be in it, but seeing it pieced together for the first time at the ESPYs, as we were waiting to go on stage was breathtaking. And I may have teared a little, but I was like “nope” I’ll wreck my make-up. Lol.

I felt like a princess walking out on stage. It was dark because the video was still playing. But knowing that I was walking out onto that stage in front of a “billion” people and on live TV, was a feeling I will never forget. Then the lights came on and everyone stood up and clapped for us!!! Hehe.

That was a heartwarming feeling.

Standing next to the former first lady was an AMAZING honor. I was in shock, and to know that it was live… I tried to remember to keep my mouth from touching the ground in awe because I was standing next to her.

After the show, I again was sooo excited because we all got invited to go to the after-party. That was so cool!!! There was music as loud as it comes and famous people everywhere you looked. Then they announced that LL Cool J was going to perform and I was like, “No way!” So I made my way to the front where a few other athletes and coaches were standing – right at the stage. Then, after he sang a few songs ICE CUBE came on! I was like no flipping way – I was literally in the front row to see him and he even looked right at me. The nicest thing was I got LL COOL J to hold our sign around him on stage, (that I had been carrying around getting pictures with lots of people). But when he held out our sign that said #CHOOSTOINCLUDE, I was 100% shocked and amazed. Because not only me but all the people in the audience took a picture of that. Hehe.

LL Cool J holds up Daina's #CHOOSETOINCLUDE sign during his performance

LL Cool J holds up Daina’s #CHOOSETOINCLUDE sign during his performance

My mind is still trying to catch up with everything that happened. I kept pinching myself, thinking there is no way that ALL just happened – it had to be a dream – it had to have. But nope it was real, which I, to this day, still cannot grasp.

The thought that my mom was with me to share this great honor, keeps making me smile.

I can’t get my head to believe I was included in an event that both Michelle Obama and Aaron Rodgers were both at!!!

I guess, the one thought that is sooo imprinted in my brain, is while I was on stage, listening to our CEO Tim Shriver speak after receiving the Arthur Ash Award for his mother, I found myself looking at the teleprompter that was placed out in the audience for speakers to use. I couldn’t help noticing he hardly ever said anything that was on it. He spoke from the heart. Even more noticeable was – you could have heard a pin drop! Everyone – all those famous, fabulously great athletes were listening to HIS message – as if for the first time. It seemed soooo sincerely, warmly received. He got a standing ovation!!! My heart was so overjoyed!!!

To this very moment I think that Tim got the message across: When in Doubt Choose to Include. I do believe that every person in that audience, every person watching TV – their mind has changed because of the video of our stories and Tim’s heartwarming and moving speech.

I loved everything he said because Special Olympics has done so much for athletes all over the world including me. But what I loved the most is that he said inclusion means a lot to our athletes, which is true for me, like 100%!  Special Olympics has done a lot for me. Thank you!

You can find the pre-taped video from the ESPYs about Eunice Kennedy Shriver and the Special Olympics movement (which includes Daina) here. You can find Tim Shriver’s acceptance speech here.


  • JoEllen Graber

    So proud of you Daina! Keep up the great work, you are a terrific ambassador for inclusion!

  • Katrin

    What a great experience, well told, with lots of “voice.” Thank you.

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