Callum Denault was just a toddler 15 years ago when his family left Los Angeles to move to Toronto.
So when he returned to the country of his birth last year as one of Canada’s Special Olympics athletes selected to take part in an exhibition game in the days leading up to Major League Soccer’s All-Star Game in Chicago, it was the first time he can remember boarding a plane.
But experiencing deep-dish pizza in the Windy City and operating in an economy that still uses pennies – “How quaint,” Denault wrote on his blog – are just the tip of the iceberg of what soccer and the Special Olympics have given the now 19-year-old Toronto resident.
As someone who identifies on the autism spectrum, one of the biggest things Denault has discovered through sports is freedom.
“There’s a lot of things I have trouble doing, like counting up change or doing school, that kind of thing,” he says. “So a lot of my life is a fight for freedom and one thing I really love about sports and Special Olympics is it gives you control over your body.”
Espousing his personal motto of “Just try really hard,” Denault has found his talents and size – he stands around 6-foot-4 – have translated well to soccer, as well as basketball, swimming and taekwondo.
Despite being a relative newcomer to the world’s most popular sport, he has been utilized as both a midfielder and goalkeeper, where his stature helps him command the penalty box and keep shots out of his net.
“If you’re not being challenged, you won’t change,” he says of trying to master a whole range of new skills.
Like many of the Special Olympics soccer players, Denault has benefited from the presence of on-field mentors, or partner athletes, who help the Special Olympic athletes get the most out of the sport.
The mentors suit up alongside the Special Olympians in a game, using their skill sets to keep the game flowing and setting up plays.
This “unified sport” approach — bringing together athletes with and without intellectual disabilities — will be in effect at the Special Olympics Unified Football Cup in Chicago in July. The tournament is part of a larger celebration marking the 50th anniversary of the first Special Olympics Summer Games, held in Chicago.
Brandon Gibbs is one of those mentors. He joined Special Olympics Ontario two years ago as a volunteer, helping out with various sports before joining as a coach for the Toronto FC unified team of which Denault was a part.
That team went to Montreal last October to face off against a Special Olympics squad representing the Montreal Impact, with both teams playing to a 2-2 draw at Stade Saputo before the two Major League Soccer teams locked horns a few hours later.
Now Gibbs will be on the field with Denault in Chicago, and while he is excited to gain the perspective of what it’s like to be a Special Olympics athlete, he’s also aware of how he can make the biggest impact.
“Rather than taking control over a game, it’s seeing how my skill set and my playing ability can help, say, Callum score the best goal he can or put him in a better position to be successful,” Gibbs says.
Sheena Parsons, the head coach of last year’s TFC unified team and who will also be leading the Pan-Canadian team into the Unified Cup in Chicago, says that she relies on the partner athletes to act as peer mentors.
Having been involved with Special Olympics for more than 15 years, Parsons, who uses her vacation allotment from her full-time job in developmental services to volunteer, says that Special Olympics soccer gives athletes a chance to show their competitive spirit.
“This gives them an opportunity to compete, which everyone should have,” she says. “It’s not about win-win, it’s about giving their best, or learning a new skill or meeting a new friend.”
Denault has certainly made new acquaintances in his Special Olympic journey, which began when his parents put him into swimming at 8.
The connection to Major League Soccer teams has allowed him to meet professional soccer stars.
He travelled to Montreal on the same plane and stayed in the same hotel as the Toronto FC players last year, getting a chance to meet captain Michael Bradley, as well as his personal favourite, striker Jozy Altidore.
“I was sitting with two TFC players on the other side [of the aisle] taking a nap so that they could get ready for the game,” he says. “One of our coaches was [TFC legend] Dwayne De Rosario, so it is quite surreal being that close and casual with these huge soccer names.”
Now set to head off to Chicago for the second time in less than a year, Denault will be one of 16 athletes and mentors on the Canada roster for the four-day tournament, where 16 teams representing 14 countries will square off.
But the win-at-all-costs attitude that fans see at this summer’s FIFA World Cup in Russia will have no place at the Unified Cup.
“I think Special Olympics actually has more sportsmanship than a lot of other sports leagues do and that’s more [important to developing] life skills,” he says. “If someone beats you or someone’s competing against you, it doesn’t mean you have to be enemies. You can still be friends.”