If you’ve ever wondered about the difference between being on a team and being part of a team, you really need to attend a Special Olympics event.
The athletes in Special Olympics are... well, special. They are enthusiastic, eager, and ready to try their hardest in whatever sport they participate in. Athlete after athlete that I spoke to reiterated the same message: “I’m here to have fun!”
“I love to cheer for my teammates,” says Sydney. Indeed, it’s her favourite part. Regan goes on to say, “I love all the support from my team mates. I cheer for everyone because it makes me feel good when they cheer for me.”
Special Olympics Sarnia has been active in swimming for about 15 years, with athletes competing all over Ontario. It wasn’t until 2017 that more sports were added to the roster, thanks to Community Coordinator Tana Manchester and her team of dedicated parents and volunteers. After realizing that her daughter Emma had ‘aged out’ of all the special sports programs for children with intellectual disabilities, she went to an info session for Special Olympics. “I cried through the whole video, watching all the kids having so much fun and accomplishing so much. I stayed afterwards and asked how to get started in Sarnia.”
Ontario Special Olympics provides the infrastructure and rules and supports local groups with small start-up grants to get a new sport off the ground. Sarnia continues to expand their programing with swimming, floor hockey, bowling, basketball, power lifting, soccer and newly added this year, track and field.
While the programs are run by volunteers and parents, it does require funding. Most of their revenue comes from donations and fundraisers. Manchester says, “It’s really important to keep the $40 registration fee low to prevent any barriers to participation. We never turn anyone away.”
Special Olympics promotes and exemplifies inclusiveness. The minimum age to participate is 8 and there is no upper age limit. Most of the athletes are in their teens or twenties with a few younger or older. In fact, many of their volunteers are teens who want to help and support the athletes.
Megan, who has been in Emma Manchester’s class since grade one, decided that she would like to volunteer. “It makes me so happy when everyone accomplishes their goal. Everyone is always cheering!”
Melissa, 27, has been swimming since she was in high school. She has been to many tournaments with numerous medals won over the years. “I don’t really think of it as competing against other people. I compete against myself, to improve every time I get in the pool.” In fact, while there is some friendly competition between them, athletes Lucas, Jenny & Angie all said that their favourite part was meeting new people and making new friends.
Those new friendships also extend to the athletes’ parents. While a lot of parents do get involved with coaching, the main coaches are NOT the parents. This allows the parents to “have a night off” and just sit back and watch their child having fun. Parenting an intellectually disabled child can be isolating. Special Olympics offers them an opportunity to bond with similar parents, share their experiences and make new friends.
“I’m always making new friends at Special Olympics,” says Melissa. “I know a lot of people now and they aren’t just friends here, the friendships extend into the rest of my life. It’s really important to be a part of something, not just on a team, but part of a team; to know you belong.” We all could learn a lot from the athletes at Special Olympics.