Some of Canada’s most celebrated Olympic athletes are years removed from winning gold, but thanks to their involvement with the Special Olympics they remain on top of the world.
Mark Tewksbury knows the feeling well. The gold medalist in the backstroke at the 1992 Olympics has been involved with Special Olympics since the 1990s and in 2015, at the Special Olympics World Summer Games in Los Angeles, he was the honorary coach of the Canadian delegation.
Tewksbury recalls seeing a golfer from Puerto Rico make a putt for a routine par and do a happy dance, unlike any he had seen before. Then, at the same Games, he fell silent along with hundreds of others — including a camera crew from ESPN — as they watched Canadian Jackie Barrett, who is autistic, notch his third world record in powerlifting.
The wide spectrum of the performances made it hard to wipe the smile off his face.
“Just because someone has an intellectual disability, that doesn’t mean they don’t have great physical strength,” he says. “You kind of forget the simple joy of attempting something. Going for something. I think we take that for granted.”
It’s these little moments that have inspired Tewksbury and nearly 50 other well-known athletes, broadcasters, and entertainers to volunteer for the Special Olympics Canada Champions Network, formed in 2011.
“When you see people put in such effort to just try to accomplish something, and that sense of accomplishment when they do it, it’s really captivating,” he explains.
Tewksbury was once part of a sport celebrity breakfast event for Special Olympians that began in the 1990s and featured larger-than-life athletes such as wrestler Hulk Hogan. That event ceased after a few years, but in 2009 he joined Special Olympics Canada’s board of directors and quickly engaged his closest athlete friends to help support the Special Olympics and its athletes.
The network now includes Olympic figure skaters Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir, professional golfer Jennifer Kirby, Toronto Maple Leafs president Brendan Shanahan and TSN personalities such as Bob McKenzie and Jennifer Hedger. Tewksbury is network co-chair along with fellow Olympic gold medalists Jamie Salé and Catriona Le May Doan.
They’re called upon throughout the year to appear at sponsor events and athletic competitions — the biggest of which are the Special Olympics Canada Summer and Winter Games, held every two years and alternating between the two, and the Special Olympics World Games, which take place every four years.
The Canada Summer Games will take place this year in Antigonish, N.S.
Jamie Salé, a world champion and Olympic gold-medal winning figure skater, says she is “constantly amazed” at the effort put forth by the athletes.
“That’s what we’re amazed by. They show us strength and perseverance with what they live with every day,” she says.
For the Special Olympians, she says, it’s all about team bonding and connecting with their friends – versus what she recalls going through near the end of her figure skating career, where she and her fellow competitors were focused only on their results.
When Salé was the honorary coach for Canada at the 2015 World Games in Austria, she says the 100-plus Canadian athletes found out she had arrived prior to the opening ceremony and all started chanting her name. She says it was one of the more emotional experiences of her life.
And to now bear witness to what the athletes accomplish after the Games — many get jobs, if they’re able, or contribute to their communities in their own unique ways — is truly special, she says.
“For some people in the long jump, for example, they might jump two feet and that’s the biggest jump they’ve ever made. And then there are some people who run the 100-metre dash just two seconds slower than the actual world record. It’s incredible what we see.”
Kirby, who retired from tour golf this year and is now an instructor based in Toronto, says she met a young golfer at a Special Olympics Canada gala a few years ago who had followed her career and took the time to handwrite her letters.
She says that really stuck out for her, and she’s now excited to teach golfers of all abilities about the sport that gave so much to her.
“It’s been great to promote Special Olympics Canada and shine a light on the golfers, but I’d love to be more hands-on,” she explains, saying she’ll be more engaged with the Champions Network now that she isn’t travelling with the LPGA Tour.
For Tewksbury, the celebrity-athlete support of Special Olympics Canada has come a long way from a travelling show with Hulk Hogan, and he’s excited to see what more he and his fellow athletes can do for the organization in the future. He already knows what the Special Olympians do for them.
The Special Olympics athletes, he says, are reigniting a passion for sport among some of those who have already outperformed almost everyone in the world in a particular discipline.
“The higher up you go in performance sport, the less you realize that fun piece of it, why you started it as a kid,” he says. “The Special Olympics is so in your face — the joy, the fun, the community — that it reconnects us to what we loved about sport in the first place.”