SPORTS

They are the champions

Winning isn't everything for Special Olympians

February 17 1997
SPORTS

They are the champions

Winning isn't everything for Special Olympians

February 17 1997

They are the champions

SPORTS

Winning isn't everything for Special Olympians

Invariably, Olympic competitions are about numbers. The sixth Special Olympic World Winter Games, held from Feb. 1 to 8 in Toronto and Collingwood, Ont., attracted 1,557 athletes from 72 countries, supported by 682 coaches and staff, plus more than 5,000 volunteers. And what about the number of gold, silver and bronze medals each country wins? ‘We don’t keep medal counts,” says spokesman Dan Bobbie, sounding exasperated at having to explain this one once again. “That’s not what these Games are about.

What these Games are about is bringing together mentally disabled athletes, aged 8 to 63, some of whom have disproven claims that they would never walk or perhaps function independently, much less compete internationally. For those like Krís Shewchuk, a 19-year-old resident of Kamloops, B.C., friendly competition and camaraderie have helped develop the kind of character strength needed to function confidently in a world where his autism has pegged him as different. “Before the Special Olympics, Kris was a quite introverted person who wouldn’t strike up a conversation,” says his father, Terry. ^

Terry and Dori Shewchuk of Kamloops, B.C., are bundled in thick jackets at the base of the downhill course where their son Kris is about to make his run. Dori’s video camera is rolling; Terry has the zoom lens ready on his 35-mm camera. Kris’s helmet hides his mom’s handiwork: the word “Canada” shaved on the back of his head. After the first competitor zips by, Terry says: “Ooh, Kris is really going to have to fly.” Kris, who has autism, finishes third in his group, his parents cheering. This scene, says Terry, an engineer with BC Tel., is a world away from the time when doctors told the Shewchuks that Kris, then 18 months old, would “never walk, talk or be able to look after himself.” Just look at him now.

Text by Danylo Hawaleshka, photography by Phill Snel

The Games have changed that, he says, and have given his son, an alpine skier, a wonderful sense of self-esteem and self-worth.” Says Kris: “Fve met a lot of people— and I talked to them and everything!”

Similar enthusiasm pervaded the opening ceremonies at Toronto s SkyDome on Feb. 2. About 20,000 spectators took in the gala, which featured a surprise appearance by two-time Olympic silver medallist Brian Orser, who shunned his more familiar blades in favor of in-line skates. Other performers included singers Michelle Wright, Susan Aglukark and Buffy Sainte-Marie. Deputy Prime Minister Sheila Copps called the Games “the friendliest sporting movement the world has ever known.”

There were five official sports—alpine skiing, cross-country skiing, floor hockey, figure skating and speed skating—plus two demonstration sports: snowshoeing and eisstocksport, a team event similar to curling. The spirit of the competition was summed up in the athletes’ oath: “Let me win. But, if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt.” Judging by what the Special Olympians have accomplished, there were no losers, only brave winners.

SPORTS

“Let’s go Canada, let’s go!” The fans chant and stomp on aluminum stands, creating an exuberant racket reminiscent of a hockey battle between Team Canada and the Russians. There is shoving along the boards and passes are crisp. The floor hockey squad from Orillia, Ont., is competing against Denmark and is one of two representing Canada (the other is from Fort Erie, Ont.). Dianne McFarland is cheering for her 30-year-old son, Bill, who has Down’s syndrome. “He’s having the time of his life,” McFarland says. Canada loses 5-1, but that hardly seems to matter. Bill puts it into perspective when he explains what he likes best about playing.

“The whole team—friends,” he says.

Their coach says they have never worn their snowshoes on snow before. Nevertheless, the 10 Special Olympians from Chinese Taipei get off to quick starts. Training consisted of running on grass or sand with heavy wooden snowshoes, says coach Hsin Hsiang Shih. Now that they are competing with lighter, smaller aluminum “bearpaws,” it all seems much easier, Shih says—and the children are “so excited they’ve forgotten the cold.” Up for the challenge is 15-year-old Sarah Smith (left, No. 15), of Port Elgin, Ont., who finishes second to a Taipei competitor in her 400-m dash. “It’s fun,” Sarah says triumphantly. Her mother, Donna, explains that her daughter has a learning disability that makes reading and remembering difficult. The Games, she says, have increased Sarah’s self-confidence immeasurably—not to mention putting a large grin on her face. □

John Griffioen (above) of Kimberley, B.C., is beaming from inside his fullface helmet, his cheeks red from the icy winds sweeping Blue Mountain in Collingwood. “I was smokin’ that hill!” the 31-year-old Griffioen exults. “It’s icy and fast." His mother, Dorothy, is also smiling. “You get all choked up and you want to cry,” she says of watching her son compete. “It’s such a thrill. He doesn’t have to prove himself to anyone any more— he’s done it and he knows who he is.” John is Dorothy's only son. At age 4 he was diagnosed as “mentally challenged," his mother says. Today, John is “high functioning,” capable of holding down a job as a handyman at a B.C. guest ranch while also competing on the ski slopes. And while Dorothy acknowledges that travelling to international meets takes a financial toll—this is his third—it is “one of those things that because it’s your son, you don’t care what it costs.”