By Kieran Heffernan
Special Olympic athletes encounter many accessibility issues in their day-to-day lives, but at least in Ottawa there’s a sport-infrastructure to make those challenges simpler.
Cathy Skinner is part of the backbone of Ottawa’s Special Olympics community.
She’s been a figure skating coach for more than 40 years and has worked with Special Olympic skaters for over a decade.
She’s seen first-hand the positive impact that competition can have on Special Olympic athletes.
“Probably one of my proudest moments was when we had one of our rinks in Stittsville named after two of my Special Olympic athletes,” Skinner said. Those two athletes, Katie Xu and Jack Fan, have won multiple national and international medals, including gold at the 2017 Special Olympic World Winter Games.
“I like to compete, train more, work hard, and do my best. I will never fall, and I will never give up,” said Xu, who’s favourite competition in her career so far is the World Games.
Xu’s mother, Jennifer Ji, said that Skinner has become very good at working with her daughter in the 10 years she’s been her coach.
“She finds a special way to teach her, encourage her, step-by-step,” Ji said. Xu also feels comfortable talking to Skinner about anything happening in her life outside of skating.
“She can tell Cathy everything about her, like if she’s not happy with somebody or she’s having some trouble with something; she can tell all that to Cathy and try to get some support.”
Jason Hussak is the Ottawa district developer for Special Olympics Ontario, which aims to provide opportunities in sport for people with intellectual disabilities.
The “biggest hurdle” he faces is ensuring there’s enough programming space and volunteers to meet the demand of athletes who want to compete in Special Olympics, he said.
“It’s a matter of getting in front of the right people at the right time to really keep growing,” Hussak said.
Skinner has plenty of other success stories from her Special Olympic athletes
While speaking to the Sports Pages, she recounted how another of her students, Michael Raytchev, attended the Canada Winter Games in 2019 and was living away from his parents for only the second time. The 16-year-old roomed with 10 other non-Special Olympic athletes.
“He grew so much in terms of confidence, life skills, organization. He was a different person from the month before because he was given that opportunity,” Skinner said.
After Raytchev won his division, Skinner recalls him being interviewed about his experience.
“He said it was like being in the Big Brother house — is what he called it. He just loved it and he was beaming and smiling.”
To date, rooming with his fellow athletes is something Raytchev still reflects on as particularly enjoyable.
“It was nice to get to know them, like their hobbies and such, go to events with them, cheer each other on for their performance and my performances.”
Although competitions can be nerve-wracking, Raytchev says he feels like a different person while performing.
“I feel a real boost of confidence, and I feel like I want to improve myself even more and I want to work harder towards improving.”
Looking back to another Canada Winter Games, in 2015, Skinner happily recalls other instances of comradery she observed when six mainstream skaters roomed with two Special Olympic skaters.
“Some of the other athletes, they were never mean, but they just didn’t know what to expect. And then, I tell you, by the time we came home, it was totally different,” she said. “In their room one time, they were giving the two Special Olympic athletes a facial mask. Well, there has never been so much laughter from everyone.”
Another time, “the boys, they were quizzing one of my athletes because he was very good at math and they would give him all these questions, and he answered them and their eyes just, they were like bug eyes. It was so beneficial to everyone.”
The pandemic has, in some ways, been especially difficult for Special Olympic athletes. For some, sports are an important outlet, with many playing a variety of sports that were all suddenly put on hold. For others, such as some athletes with autism, the constant changing of routines and rules has been challenging.
The figure skaters have been slightly more fortunate, as they’ve been able to keep skating when rinks are open due to the insurance that comes with being members of Skate Canada, unlike other Special Olympic athletes who have been unable to continue training.
All that’s on Raytchev’s mind as he looks to the future and getting back on the ice.
“Probably the first time is not going to go well because it’s been a while,” he said. “I’m just hoping this whole COVID situation settles down and we can go back to our normal life.”