The Special Olympics Zimbabwe golf team was treated to a surprise visit by State President, Emmerson Mnangagwa, at Yas Links Golf Club in Abu Dhabi, yesterday.

Mnangagwa broke away from his official visit to the United Arab Emirates (UAE) to wish his compatriots well ahead of the start of the golf competition.

National Director of Special Olympics Zimbabwe, Viola Musariri, couldn’t hide her excitement at having Zimbabwe’s first citizen call on some of her athletes. Particularly as her son, Munyaradzi ‘Munya’ Musariri, is on the Special Olympics Zimbabwe Golf team.

Munya, who previously participated in the Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship - one of the major Pro-Am championships in the world - last year, was there for the visit.

The 24-year-old, who plays off a 10 and is aiming to reach a single-figure handicap, won a gold medal at the 2015 World Games in Los Angeles, USA. While that achievement saw him recognized on a global stage, his success has not come easily.

Munya is the oldest of four sons, and being quiet and reserved whilst growing up, generally struggled to fit in. It was only at Prince Edward High School, where three-time major winner Nick Price was educated, that Munya was introduced to golf through the special class of his Harare-based unified school.

“It was like golf was made for Munya – golf fitted with his character – he can be alone, take his clubs, go to the driving range and just hit balls,” said Musariri of her son.

Munya, who was crowned Zimbabwe’s 2016 Sportsman of the Year with a Disability, played with Spain’s Pablo Larazzabal at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Pro-Am last year and gained invaluable tips from the 2014 Championship winner.

This year, Munya is looking forward to new experiences, friends and challenges at the World Games.

Munya’s mother, Musariri, has seen the life-changing impact of Special Olympics outside of her home too. Only three athletes from the team had been beyond Zimbabwe’s borders prior to this event. “Thirteen of our athletes have never been on a plane or stayed in a hotel before and I can see the transformation, the confidence, in all of them, interacting with people from different cultures and different parts of the world,” Musariri said.

Success for athletes can create awareness, change perceptions and subsequently benefit their families and societies. Takudzwa Matonhodze, a 16-year-old athlete, has created significant change for people with intellectual disabilities in his community. Takudzwa is from St Mary’s in Harare, a very densely populated area, and has inspired a shift in mindset for families who have children with intellectual disabilities. “Six different families have signed up their children for Special Olympics golf, all because of their community member, Takudzwa,” added Musariri.

While the athletes continue to encourage tolerance and inclusion, the national director says that raising funds and putting a team together is always a struggle. There is an additional concern that more is being done for people with physical disability than for people with intellectual disabilities in Zimbabwe.

Musariri, though, remains positive about the future for Special Olympics, especially after Mnangagwa’s visit, “it’s good that the President is here now - we look forward to more support from government. I’m hoping that this opens discourse with the government on improving conditions for people with intellectual disability.”

Special Olympics Zimbabwe won 11 medals, including 5 gold in Los Angeles 2015 and are hopeful their 16 athletes can improve on that count in Abu Dhabi 2019.

Over 7,500 athletes from more than 190 nations are currently in the UAE competing at Special Olympics World Games Abu Dhabi 2019.