Special Olympics highlights transformative power of sports

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Darby Taylor was on a trip with his family from Calgary to Disneyland when he learned he would be an ambassador for the upcoming Special Olympics Canada Winter Games in his hometown.

Taylor, 29, was so happy that she declared she no longer needed to go to Disneyland.

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“It felt amazing,” said Taylor, who has wanted to be a Special Olympics ambassador since he learned 10 years ago that the U.S. version of the athletic program for people with intellectual disabilities had that role.

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Calgary will host the Special Olympics Canada Winter Games from February 27 to March 2, featuring eight sports. Taylor has competed in Special Olympics for almost 17 years and was hoping to play in his second national games in floor hockey, but his team lost a tie to be in these Winter Games.

However, becoming an ambassador and welcoming more than 4,000 athletes, coaches and other volunteers to Calgary helps alleviate that disappointment because he considers it a “dream come true.”

Nicole Vespa has been practicing three times a week to prepare for the figure skating competition. The 25-year-old from Hamilton has also participated in swimming, golf and rhythmic gymnastics with Special Olympics Canada.

“It’s given me confidence,” Vespa said.

The impact that Special Olympics Canada has had on both families is immeasurable. Darby’s mother, Sue, said the program has been transformative.

“I don’t know what Darby would have done once he finished high school, but Special Olympics has given him an infinite number of opportunities,” he said. “Events, friends, it really is life-changing.”

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special Olympics
Special Olympics athlete ambassador Darby shows his medals to nearly 1,000 Calgary students from grades 4 to 6, who had the opportunity to learn about disability and inclusion during a celebration to launch the Games’ Calgary 2024 school program Olympics Canada Winter Event at Seven Chiefs Sportsplex & Jim. Starlight Center on Wednesday, October 4, 2023. Darren Makowichuk/Postmedia

Nicole’s father Paul added that this has also benefited him and his wife.

“I don’t think without Special Olympics Nicole would have been as active,” she said. “And then the friends we’ve made across the country, just competing at the national level.

“We went to St. Albert, we went to Corner Brook, we made a lot of friends and we keep in touch with them.”

Special Olympics Canada is looking for more than 1,200 volunteers to help with the Winter Games in Calgary, with applications available online. Coaches and other volunteers are also welcome year-round throughout the country.

Erin Ambrose, an advocate for the Professional Women’s Hockey League team in Montreal, is an advocate for Special Olympics Canada and hopes to see more people get involved with the organization.

“It’s just being aware of what these athletes do,” Ambrose said. “I think it’s very important to just spread that exposure and that knowledge.

“We will send more than 800 athletes to these Games and I think that shows that, no matter what, you have the opportunity to participate in sport.”

People across Canada can also contribute by purchasing a Special Olympics donut at Tim Hortons from Friday to Sunday. The coffee chain said 100 per cent of profits from donut sales will be donated to Special Olympics Canada.

The Special Olympics Donut is a chocolate cake donut with white fondant, colorful sprinkles and whipped topping.

“I can only have one because I’m training,” said Nicole Vespa.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 1, 2024.

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