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Figure skater Katie Xu of Ottawa got into the sport 10 years ago when her mother brought her to Special Olympics hoping she’d make some friends. She also competes in swimming, soccer, skiing and basketball.

Dave Chan/The Globe and Mail

Special Olympics athlete Katie Xu competes in lots of sports — swimming, soccer, skiing and basketball — but she’s a world champion in figure skating. Along with her skating partner Jack Fan, Xu won a gold medal at the Special Olympics World Winter Games in Austria in 2017, as well as silver for her solo routine.

“I love to jump,” says Xu. “I like the waltz jump, toe loop and Salchow, all the different kinds of jumps, but the loop jump is my favourite.”

The 20-year-old figure skater from Ottawa says competing in her first international competition was a great experience. She loved seeing Austria and meeting other Special Olympics athletes from so many different countries, making new friends and exchanging pins. Every country has its own little pin that the athletes like to trade with each other. On the ice, her personal goals were to do her best, not feel rushed, and have a good time. And to smile.

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“My coach told me to follow the routine, listen to the music, get good speed and go for my personal best score,” says Xu. “I tried to keep going, to push my limits and not fall. Ice is very slippery.”

Xu’s skating journey began more than 10 years ago when her mother, Jennifer Ji, brought her to the Special Olympics hoping she could make a friend. She started in figure skating because her older brother played hockey so she wanted to skate, too.

Xu, who is autistic, ‘had no friends and was just hiding in her own little world’ when she began sports, her mother Jennifer Ji says. But over time, she showed more interaction with the coaches and other athletes, and she improved. ‘That was good enough for me to keep going,’ Ji says.

Dave Chan/The Globe and Mail

“At the beginning Katie couldn’t focus because she’s autistic,” says Ji, who left her full-time job as a verification engineer at Nortel Networks to be a stay-at-home mother after her daughter was diagnosed.

“She had no friends and was just hiding in her own little world, so I wanted to introduce her to sports. Sometimes the coach would ask her to do something and she’d listen and sometimes she wouldn’t. She’d just do her thing. Every year we’d go and, eventually, she followed the coach and the other athletes. With every little step I’d see the improvement. That was good enough for me to keep going.”

As Xu progressed successfully from local and regional meets to provincial Games, then from national Games to World Games, her confidence continued to grow.

“She loves her solo because through it she’s able to show everyone what she can do,” says Ji. “She loves the music and chooses her own [movie soundtracks are a favourite]. She loves all the skating dresses, too — she’s a very girly girl. But the biggest change has been to her mind. She doesn’t need her little world anymore. Her world has truly opened up. She’s opened up. It didn’t happen immediately. She opened up step by step.”

Xu, who has excelled in skating, winning gold and silver medals at the world level, also participates in swimming, soccer, skiing and basketball. ‘She’s always happy and very fit now after the training in so many different things,’ Ji says. ‘She looks young and energetic — a beautiful girl.’

Dave Chan/The Globe and Mail

Swimming is the next big competition for Xu, coming up soon at the Special Olympics Canada 2018 Summer Games in Antigonish, N.S., from July 31 to Aug. 4. Xu competes in the front crawl, backstroke and breaststroke. She’s been practising and hopes to win a medal.

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“I like to train hard and compete,” says Xu. “Front crawl is my best one. My coach helps me to keep up a good pace. I try not to be slow and do my best. There’s no stopping or rest, not even if you’re tired or exhausted in the pool.”

Xu’s involvement with Special Olympics has also helped her develop a healthy lifestyle with regular exercise. That’s important as individuals with an intellectual disability have a four out of five chance of being obese or overweight.

“I’m so proud of her,” says Ji. “When I think of her 10 years ago, I could not imagine she’d be like this. Special Olympics and all the sports have really helped her. She’s always happy and very fit now after the training in so many different things. She looks young and energetic — a beautiful girl.

“For her first 10 years, I was very sad, too. I asked myself, what can I do to help this lonely little girl? I’m happy now. I helped her find a way to grow, and I’m happy for her.”

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