This is a big year in Canadian sport. One year after the glory of the Olympic Games in PyeongChang, South Korea, Canadian athletes are getting ready to take center stage March 14 – 21, 2019, at the Special Olympics World Games in Abu Dhabi, UAE.
The motto is “Meet the Determined.” Perfect. In fact, people with cognitive disabilities are called “People of Determination” here. There is no better way to explain the personal journey for some of these men and women. For some families, it was a journey of uncertainty to start with, at finding out that doors could be closed to their loved on as a result of an intellectual disability. And then, somewhere along the way, a door opened: enter Special Olympics.
Now 50 years old, the Special Olympics movement was the brainchild of two visionaries, Dr. Frank Hayden in Canada and Eunice Kennedy Shriver in the United States.
Kennedy Shriver is credited with founding the movement, with the very first event being held at Soldier Field in Chicago in 1968. That said, the competition itself was inspired by discoveries in the early 1960s that were made by Hayden, a Canadian sport scientist at the University of Toronto.
It was Hayden’s theory that there could be positive effects on the fitness levels of children with intellectual disabilities who participated in regular exercise. He started to test this theory with a group of children at the Beverley School in Toronto which caught the attention of Kennedy Shriver.
Of the 7,500 athletes competing at the Games from 200 countries, there are 109 athletes from across Canada, who have gone through a series of qualification events and are ready to take on the world. The athletes are supported on the ground by 37 coaches and 17 mission staff.
“Special Olympics Team Canada competing at the World Games is the culmination of years of preparation,” said Sharon Bollenbach, CEO of Special Olympics Canada. “Training that begins in community sport programs, that leads to regional, provincial and then national qualifying events. Providing quality programs and competitions at every step of the way is our priority as an organization, so to have athletes realize their dreams by making it to these World Games is extremely important.”
Team Canada athletes will be competing in nine sports: athletics, swimming, soccer, basketball, rhythmic gymnastics, bocce, powerlifting, golf and 10-pin bowling.
The Canadian team has some great potential.
Take Regina’s Michael Qing for example. The 26-year-old has been swimming on Special Olympics teams for the last 14 years. Abu Dhabi will mark the fourth Special Olympics World Games appearance for this veteran competitor, since 2007. According to the Special Olympics Canada website, Michael is “excited to see a new country and meet new friends.”
“One thing to watch for at these World Games is to observe the true spirit of community and the care each athlete has for their fellow athletes,” Bollenbach said.
It is equal parts inspiring and moving. The UAE has named 2019 the Year of Tolerance, and it shows.
Regan Hofley from Winnipeg will be competing in athletics. She started as a Special Olympics athlete 10 years ago at the age of eight and has enjoyed some impressive results on her way to Abu Dhabi, including winning three golds at National Games, two silvers at the Canada Games, and three golds at the Western Games.
Team Canada’s Eddie Nicks is going to be busier than most at the Games. The 22-year-old athlete from Mississauga, Ont., is competing in soccer, which is his favourite sport. In addition, Nicks has been selected to participate in the torch relay at the opening ceremony. This honour is as one of seven athletes, one each representing the different Special Olympics regions around the world.
Keep your eye on Andre Goulet, from Timmins, Ont., because he is a heavy hitter in his favourite sport of powerlifting. From the Special Olympics Canada website: “He won gold at Regional Games, four golds at National Games, and three golds and one silver at the 2015 World Games. His goals for the 2019 World Games are to bring home four Golds, squat 420 lbs., bench 300 lbs., and deadlift 500 lbs.” Game on!
The final thought belongs to Bollenbach. “As the CEO of SOC, I am filled with such a sense of pride watching our athletes compete on this world stage. I know the work that has gone into making this journey happen - the dedication of the athletes, the amazing commitment of volunteer coaches and the joy of parents seeing their son or daughter achieve this milestone. Not everyone gets to represent their country at a World Games, so to see the journey unfold is amazing!”