Special Olympians thrilled to compete

Special Olympic athletes throughout Kamloops were thrilled to find out that their city will be hosting the organization's B.C. Winter Games.

Special Olympics B.C. announced Oct. 17 that the city will play host to as many as 700 intellectually-challenged athletes and hundreds more coaches, supporters and family members in February 2015.

And it promises to be the feel good event of the year.

In fact, many locals are still glowing from the last time the Special Olympics B.C. Winter Games were here in 2003.

"I've volunteered for many, many events," said Kamloops-Thompson School District trustee Anne Glover. "I still consider the Special Olympics in the top three events I ever volunteered for. I'll never forget it."

Kamloops has long been a key location in the world of Special Olympics in B.C. as one of the first communities to start the programming in the province.

"Provincial games are an exciting, empowering, and frequently life-changing experience for athletes and volunteers alike, and we're sure the Kamloops community will once again provide an environment where the skill and determination of the athletes will be in the spotlight and the spirit of Special Olympics will shine," said Lois McNary, Special Olympics B.C. vice president of sport.

About 1,000 volunteers are welcome to get involved in staging the inspiring event, said McNary.

The 2015 Winter Games will be held in February and feature seven sports: alpine skiing, cross-country skiing, curling, figure skating, floor hockey, snowshoeing and speed skating.

Those who take top medals will move on to the 2016 Special Olympics Canada Winter Games in Corner Brook, NL. From there, they can qualify for the 2017 Special Olympics World Winter Games in Austria.

Athletes also experience joy and acceptance, cultivate friendships and self-confidence and feel empowered to overcome obstacles and achieve their goals.

More than 150 Kamloops residents compete in sports organized for the intellectually challenged.

Each one exemplifies the athlete's oath: Let me win, but if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt.

For 26-year-old Kamloops resident Danielle Pedersen, going to regular bowling practice, qualifying for higher level competition and travelling to regional events are the highlight of her life.

"I used to be very shy but now it's getting better," said Pedersen.

"And there's the courage to actually be an athlete. Special Olympics became part of my life and I never want to give that up. It's like my dream."

For many athletes, joining the Special Olympics allowed them to feel total acceptance from strangers for the first time.

"I love the people that are respectful and the companionship," said 26-year-old Anders Beitel, Pedersen's friend and teammate.

Sharon Chase has noticed growth in her son, 26-year-old Cody Chase, since he joined about seven years ago.

"He always has been shy," said Sharon. "But coming here I've seen him open up. And my God, it's the grand meeting when they start again in September after they've been off for the summer."

Physical achievements are also an important factor in gaining the confidence needed to face a world that has often been hostile for people with intellectual challenges.

It helps that the Special Olympics has a sporting event for almost any level of physical ability. Cody wasn't able to continue competing in floor hockey because of vision problems, said Sharon, so he switched to bowling and basketball, and it's made all the difference.

"It really boosts the ego that they can really do things," she said.

Jenna Fowler, 31, is bursting with excitement over going to the provincials with her softball team next year. She's especially grateful for the opportunity because bone disease has held her back in the past.

"I've always wanted to go in sports so now I'm able to do that and it's just really amazing," said Fowler. "It's really an honour to be able to do this."

Special Olympics is the world's largest sports organization for children and adults with disabilities, providing year-round training and competitions to more than 4 million athletes in 170 countries.

Competitions are held every day, all around the world, including local, national and regional competitions, adding up to more than 53,000 events a year.

The first International Special Olympics Summer Games were held in Chicago in 1968. Anne McGlone Burke, a teacher with the Chicago Park District, launched the idea of an Olympic-style athletic competition for people with special needs.

Eunice Kennedy Shriver encouraged Burke to expand on the idea and as head of the Joseph P. Kennedy Foundation, provided a grant of $25,000.

More than 1,000 athletes from across the United States and Canada participated at the July 1968 games, where Shriver announced the formation of Special Olympics.

In 1980, Special Olympics B.C. started out with two weekends of games and about 500 participants. Thirty years later, it provides year-round, high-quality sports programs and competitions for 3,900 athletes in 55 communities around the province, with the vital assistance of more than 2,900 trained, dedicated volunteers.

The local programs are run entirely by volunteers who earn the love and admiration of the athletes and their loved-ones alike.

"They have the patience of I don't know what," said Sharon. "We're all patient with our child. But it takes a special person to be able to work with all special needs. It's phenomenal, it really is."

The athletes' trust and affection for the volunteers who make their activities possible shine through.

"They're awesome. If it wasn't for them we'd probably be here all night," laughed Fowler. "They just make sure we're on time and get us all through (our turn to compete). It's great because they're not getting paid for this and their hearts are just in it. It's wonderful."

Nearly every single volunteer will say that they got hooked on the Special Olympics because there's huge payback - and it's priceless.

"I remember my first year volunteering," said Michale Maveety, Kamloops Special Olympics fundraising co-ordinator.

"After three months (volunteering) I went on vacation. After two weeks (away) to walk in the door and see 70 of them come running to the door trying to high five you, you light up. You never experience anything like it.

"They love you so much how can you not want to be here?"

Maveety is organizing several fundraising events in the coming year. Although the group receives grants from the B.C. Lottery Corporation, there's always a need for more.

An upcoming event that Maveety likens to strikes for tikes will go towards paying for uniforms for the softball team and all the other qualifiers to the provincial competition in the Lower Mainland next year.

Maveety is also organizing a celebrity curling bonspiel that will invite local high profile personalities and politicians to learn to curl than compete alongside the Special Olympic athletes.

In the meantime, more volunteers are always needed. Anyone can help out, said Maveety. The time commitment and involvement depends entirely on each individual's comfort level, he said.

As Maveety's learned, the athletes are not hard to please.

"To have somebody cheering the teams on, that's all we need."

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