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Innisfail jumps into Alberta's Special Olympics program

With one look TJ McLaughlin was told he was big and strong and will be Innisfail’s next star shot putter. Across the room Amanda Henschel heard that she was fast and will soon be a formidable force in track and field.
Innisfail’s special athletes get together at Centennial Park last week in preparation for sport competition with the Special Olympics Alberta (SOA) program. They agreed
Innisfail’s special athletes get together at Centennial Park last week in preparation for sport competition with the Special Olympics Alberta (SOA) program. They agreed to join SOA at a first ever meeting and presentation on July 11.

With one look TJ McLaughlin was told he was big and strong and will be Innisfail’s next star shot putter. Across the room Amanda Henschel heard that she was fast and will soon be a formidable force in track and field.

The broad smiles on both the faces of McLaughlin and Henschel clearly expressed joy at the prospect of competing and having fun in organized sport at the provincial level.

The pair, along with 22 other interested citizens – including special athletes, parents and business people - attended a community meeting for special athletes on July 11 at Innisfail Alliance Church. The goal was to get Innisfail on board with Special Olympics Alberta (SOA) to start local events and participation for the town’s special athletes.

“This is the start of our chapter. The numbers we saw here tonight is enough for us to start,” said Gavin Lobb, a local businessman who spearheaded the inaugural meeting that attracted 24 citizens. “We are now looking for volunteers and to create a board. We are also looking to have our first event in September. Hopefully we can kick things off then.”

Added Jennifer Henschel, mother of Amanda: “Right now special athletes either have to go to Olds, Red Deer or Calgary. There is actually very little here for our special needs population.”

Kirk De Fazio, the agency’s president and CEO, and Johnny Byrne, vice-president of sport who presented a 45-minute power point presentation, represented SOA at the meeting. Byrne told his audience it was important to focus his presentation on athletes, volunteers and coaching.

The provincial organization, founded in 1980, offers sports programs in more than 30 communities around the province for Albertans with an intellectual disability. Starting with just a few dozen athletes it now has more than 3,000 competing in 15 official summer and winter sports with three more expected to be added. The sports offered include track and field, swimming, basketball, power lifting, curling, figure skating, floor hockey and snowshoeing.

“There is no real cookie cutter image. It’s really what you want to make it. It’s something really individual to your community,” said Byrne during his presentation.

Byrne said SOA was not a program designed exclusively for people with Down’s syndrome, nor was it just “one” event.

“Where we do all our good is right here in the community. Special Olympics is at the community level,” he said. “The key thing about Special Olympics is inclusion.”

Byrne told his audience that his organization does not cater to the “elite” athletes and that all ability levels are treated equally.

“Special Olympics is about the community and how it enriches that community,” said Byrne. “The stories that stay with you are not the ones about trimming a second or two off a time on the track. It’s the ones from parents. It’s the changes in the athletes themselves.”

De Fazio emphasized to the audience that SOA would train coaches and offer the community full guidance and support to plan their events. He noted that if the town has a gym or another facility available to use then Innisfail is on its way to be part of the Special Olympics family in Alberta.

“You need no experience, just desire,” said De Fazio. “We are going to take a baby step with Innisfail. We need one event, a tournament. Once you are around these athletes you are hooked.”

Any citizen or group who wants to help out Innisfail’s Special Athletes in organizing their first SOA event, or to volunteer and participate, can contact Gavin Lobb at 403-227-1847.