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Youth Games experience unlike any other for Ascension Collegiate, Carbonear Collegiate
For the 16 young athletes who represented their schools and the province of Newfoundland and Labrador at a recent international Special Olympics competition in Ontario, it wasn't just about winning medals.
Sure, it was nice that Ascension Collegiate and Carbonear Collegiate both made it to the podium at the 2019 Special Olympics Ontario Invitational Youth Games, the first international event of its kind for high school-aged athletes with an intellectual disability. But more than anything, the games were about being part of something special.
"Everybody has weaknesses, but you don't dwell on that, and these games bring out everybody's strong points and it makes them shine," said Sonya Lee, a student support services teacher from Ascension.
Held May 14-17, the games brought together over 2,000 student athletes and 500 coaches from seven international regions. The Bay Roberts and Carbonear schools, the only ones from Newfoundland and Labrador at the event, competed in the unified division. Unified sport is an inclusive model that allows athletes to train and play together, no matter the difference in their abilities. Ascension and Carbonear were part of a pilot project in Newfoundland and Labrador for the concept and are now in their third year of unified sport.
"It was the first time they'd done a unified youth games, so that was even more special – the fact they were part of something that was being done for the first time," said Danielle Doyle, an instructional resource teacher at Carbonear Collegiate.
It was Special Olympics Newfoundland and Labrador program director Mike Daly who contacted the two schools last year to let them know about the opportunity to compete in the Youth Games.
Ascension competed in bocce, a procession ball sport somewhat similar to lawn bowling. There were 46 teams in the unified sport bocce, and the two teams from the Bay Roberts school came home with silver and bronze medals.
"The competition was fierce," said Lee, who also credited Debbie Janes, who couldn't attend the event, with being a big part of Ascension's success. "When all the athletes got out on the playing field, you could see the competitive spirit, but you could also see the sportsmanship. We didn't even have to tell them – at the end of every game, they shook hands."
"I was high-fiving my friends and we were all excited," said Jayden Fiddler, one of the Ascension athletes. "All of us, we were together and we started shaking hands. We did good at our games."
Carbonear Collegiate's journey to a bronze medal in basketball was a tough one. The team was up by 10 points before their opponents from Saskatchewan tied the game. Luke Mullins secured the medal with about 20 seconds to spare by scoring the winning basket.
As Doyle describes it, there were no hard feelings on the court.
"Everybody cheered for everybody," she said. "If they got a basket, of course our guys cheered. Some people cheered no matter who scored in the gym."
There were a variety of programs competitors could take advantage of while at the games. Doyle and Lee were impressed with Healthy Athletes, an initiative that allowed the athletes to have their vision screened by optometry students from the University of Waterloo. They could be referred to ophthalmologists who were also on site.
"Anyone who needed glasses came home with prescription glasses, came home with prescription sports goggles," Doyle said.
If that wasn't enough, the event had massage therapists, chiropractors and physiotherapists there who could see to an athlete's needs.
Beyond the games, there was some sightseeing to do. Steven Riddle-Ellsworth from Carbonear Collegiate was blown away by the glass floor of the CN Tower, and teammate Mackenzie Curran was amazed by Ripley's Aquarium of Canada. Lee said one of her athletes, Rhegan Robinson, was initially pretty nervous about going to the top of the tower, but managed to overcome her fears and finish the visit with a smile on her face. She told The Compass it was ultimately her favourite experience in Toronto.
"It was really good," added Ascension athlete Brittany Anne Hutchings when asked about the Youth Games.
Fiddler was extra excited to see his sister in Toronto and loved how nice people were, giving specific kudos to cab drivers.
"The one cab driver we were with, he was so nice. He was talking to us."
Both schools were impressed with how organized the event was. Just about everything was paid for, and there was help provided at every corner. The games ended with a dance, which proved to be a special moment for all involved.
"That's where you see the beauty," said Lee. "There's no competitive boundaries. It's just everybody comes together and everybody is just all united. To me, it was an experience of a lifetime."
Doyle noted there are a lot of positives to inclusion when it comes to people with disabilities.
"The skills they learn through this also help them in work environments, school environments, home environments – it fosters their independence really," she said. "I can see a big difference in some of them since we started this unified sports program."
Doyle also sees benefit to the program when it comes to the students who help her athletes along – they're called generic partners in unified sports settings.
"I can't say enough about the reception of this program at the school. I have to turn kids away from volunteering sometimes just because I have way too many volunteers."
Ally Cleary, one of the generic partners for Carbonear Collegiate, understands that value.
"It's really nice to watch them have the experience and let them have the experience that a lot of us just take for granted," she said. Fellow generic partner Hannah Doyle remarked that going to Toronto strengthened her bond with the team, as they spent so much time together.
"You learn a lot about teamwork," said Jadyn Jacobs, one of the generic partners from Ascension. Eric Ardis, also from Ascension, couldn't recall seeing a sad face the whole time he was in Toronto.
"Everyone was there for the same reasons – to have fun," he said.
In this province, unified sports is spreading, with schools in St. John's now getting involved.
"This is going to bloom and flourish," said Lee.