“I do not know how many medals I’ve won, I have a lot,” says 17-year-old swimming champ Connor Bissett, from his home in Whitecourt, Alta. “I’m most proud of the gold medals,” he adds.
Connor is an athletic dynamo with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) who has competed in Canada’s Special Olympics since he was 11. Last year he was named Alberta’s male athlete of the year by the movement that encourages people with intellectual disabilities and their families to get involved in the sporting community.
He also has a third-degree black belt in taekwondo and this summer he will be competing at the Special Olympics Canada 2018 Summer Games in Antigonish, N.S., alongside thousands of other athletes.
“Special Olympics has brought Connor out of his shell and helped him make new friends,” says Margo Bissett, 51, Connor’s mom. “As long as he wants to swim and continue competing with his SO buddies he will. It’s a life-long opportunity.”
Autism is a mental condition present from early childhood that makes it difficult for people to communicate, form relationships and understand abstract concepts. Canadian research suggests that as many as one in 165 people have ASD, the vast majority of whom are male.
In many ways autistic children or no different from their peers, but they need a little extra support and love to advance. “You want to make sure they are doing something they enjoy and that they are part of a community that accepts them,” says Margo, who has made Connor’s development her full-time job. “We have met such great families through SO and Connor has been given so many opportunities.”
Connor’s favourite Special Olympics memory is celebrating his 15th birthday at the 2014 Summer Games in Vancouver.
The coaches and team decorated Connor’s dorm door at the University of British Columbia in streamers and put a celebratory hula skirt on him for the day. His family was in the stands cheering him on with a “Happy Birthday Connor” banner as he competed at the university’s indoor pool with every molecule of energy and grit he could muster.
It was extremely hot and the athletes swam late into the day, but Connor’s motivation never waivered. He was a hot shot in the pool, winning nine medals — four gold, three silver, two bronze — not unlike his Olympic swimming hero Michael Phelps, to whom he bears a passing resemblance.
When the heats were done and the lanes emptied, the Bissetts, including dad Gary and older sister Hana, special ordered dozens of cupcakes to celebrate poolside with other parents, coaches and athletes. The party of some 50 participants finished by singing to Connor.
“Connor’s birthday is in July so usually school is done and the kids are gone,” says Margo. “This was so special to him as he had all his friends and family there. It’s a day he will not forget and neither will we.”
One of the best ways for anybody to make friends is to meet and connect with others who share similar interests, as people do increasingly online through Facebook, Instagram and other social media. However that option is often not available for most individuals with intellectual disabilities.
“Communication for Connor, especially expressing himself, has been an area where competitive sports have been so valuable,” says Scott Burdick, a pediatric occupational therapist who has worked with Connor for years.
But competition in the pool is, in some respects, of secondary importance to what happens around organized sport — for example, developing life skills and working toward independence by following meal plans, training routines and regularly interacting with coaches and teammates.
“Special Olympics has created a wonderful opportunity to practise so many skills all at once,” says Burdick.
As Margo watched Connor, develop into a strong athlete, a few years ago she decided to become a swim coach. This helped her to better understand the techniques Connor was learning, and made it easier to explain things if he had trouble understanding coaches.
“It brought us closer as we talked about what was happening at swim practices,” says Margo. “I understood what he was saying and we could have talks on how to improve.”
There is plenty of time to talk because Margo drives Connor daily to the pool in Edmonton when he’s training for a competition. That means getting up at 4:30 a.m. and driving 90 minutes each way. Not all parents are prepared to make this level of commitment, but for Margo it’s a job that brings her joy.
Now that Connor is preparing for the Summer Games, in addition to training with the Olympian Swim Club in Edmonton, he also works with a personal trainer twice a week and participates in a CrossFit program at a local gym.
“Sport exposes our athletes to challenges and successes that build confidence,” says Glenn MacDonell, chief executive officer of Special Olympics Ontario. “When it’s all done correctly, you replace empathy with achievement. The social and psychological benefits flow from simply feeling good about yourself.”
Depending on how well Connor does at the Summer Games, he has a shot at competing at the World Games in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, next year.
“I want to go to the World Summer Games and win more medals,” Connor says enthusiastically. Somewhere along the way he also wants to squeeze in a fourth-degree black belt in taekwondo.