VERNON - Over 1,000 volunteers and 600 athletes are coming together this weekend to make the 2019 Special Olympics B.C. happen. But outside of this weekend's event, all around the province chapters of the Special Olympics B.C. are working year-round training and mentoring the athletes.
Vernon chapter treasurer and coach Cheryl Friesen has been involved with Special Olympics B.C. for more than a decade and said she was instantly "hooked" after she started volunteering. The Vernon chapter has about 140 member athletes competing in 17 different sports, coached by around 50 member volunteers.
Special Olympics athletes have a variety of intellectual disabilities but Friesen said competing in sports allows athletes to focus on what they can achieve.
"When I started working with the athletes I discovered a lot of them were nervous about what they could do, but once a coach starts giving them encouragement and pointers they completely rise to the occasion and exceed everything that they ever thought they'd be able to do," she said. "From a coach's perspective it knocks us over every time."
Athletes at the club take part in a variety of summer and winter sports, from skiing and curling to soccer and softball. Programs run from September to June and some athletes can train as much as four or five days a week.
Most athletes come into the club when they are in their mid to late teens, often after they've been bullied or had a rough time elsewhere.
"When they come into our programs in their mid to late teens they've still got a lot of challenges that they are working through socially and based on their experiences in school," Friesen said. "The growth that we see with the athletes through their participation in sport, with their coaches, and with the social aspect is just unbelievable."
Competing in sport helps build confidence and self-esteem in the athletes, said Friesen, and the transition can be remarkable.
"Some of our athletes that come in have verbal challenges and all of a sudden they're in a safe place and they can learn to express themselves," Friesen said. The coach said one athlete went from having extremely limited verbal skills to being a greeter for the team.
"[Athletes] want to achieve more because they see [what] they've been able to do through sport," said Friesen.
Just like the Olympic Games, athletes compete and qualify for provincial competitions, then national, and then every four years a worldwide competition is held.
Friesen is clearly very passionate about mentoring and coaching the athletes. "The way I look at it, it's sport at its purest level," she said. "The athletes work hard at what they do, they give it their best."
The 2019 Special Olympics B.C. takes place at various venues around Greater Vernon Feb. 21 to Feb. 23.
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