When Randy James first got involved with Special Olympics in the Comox Valley, the group had a smaller profile, with fewer participants playing fewer sports.
The group had been around for about three years by that point, with athletes in five events.
In the 30 years since he joined to coach floor hockey, the area’s group now competes in a dozen sports. In all, there are usually 80 to 90 athletes at all levels playing, primarily from September through June, and they just wrapped another successful year.
James emphasizes many train all year-round though. Jake Hooper is one such athlete who has competed at a high level for the past 10 years in a host of sports, and he agrees with James about the year-round nature of the group.
“Special Olympics isn’t just a once-a-year thing,” he says.
He takes part in floor hockey, swimming, track, skiing, power-lifting and golf. He’s competed at the nationals for summer sports five times in track competitions, and next winter he will head to Thunder Bay with the local floor hockey team for the nationals, with the aim of going on to the worlds.
“I have not been to a World Games,” he says. “That’s my goal.”
Hooper got involved 10 years ago, while at Vanier Secondary. He’d been on the track team but was having a bit of trouble keeping up when he noticed James and the Special Olympics athletes practising on the school’s track. He stopped by and was thrilled to be included on the team.
“I still wanted to do track, and it kind of went on from there,” he says.
“Inclusion” is the main word that comes to mind for Hooper when he thinks about Special Olympics. That not only refers to his own inclusion but also inclusion for all athletes as part of the community in which they live. For example, he talks about how donations from local golf course Mulligans helped them put together a golfing program a couple of years ago.
Part of Special Olympics’ integration with the community is getting people to understand that Special Olympics athletes share the common bond of having a mental disability. On the other hand, the Paralympics is for athletes facing physical disabilities, though some Special Olympics athletes may also have these.
James also emphasizes the organization encourages people of all abilities to take part in Special Olympics.
“For me, it’s really about helping athletes reach their potential,” he says. “Our programs are inclusive of all ability levels…. We have a place for you.”
Still, he is pleased to see how far some have taken their talents, which is one of the benefits he finds as a coach and organizer. Much credit goes to the help from sponsors and the community as a whole.
“I think there’s an increased awareness,” he says. “Individuals are no longer being segregated…. We’re seeing a lot more recognition in the community.”
James has been thrilled to see school gyms filled with people watching events like three-on-three basketball tournaments.
“I don’t think you would’ve seen that 15 years ago,” he says.
One new development has been a program for younger athletes, from ages five to 11, which the local Special Olympics chapter brought in a few years ago. Eight young athletes took part this last year.
New ideas have to come from somewhere, and athletes like Hooper provide input. He speaks for other athletes as a representative for the province on the national leadership council and for Canada on the North American council. There he can bring forward ideas, issues and other matters forward to help Special Olympics continue to grow.
As to what’s next, Hooper says, “These past 10 years have been absolutely outstanding. I can’t wait to see how Special Olympics progresses.”