The event may still be five months away, but anticipation is already ramping up for the 2024 Special Olympics Canada Winter Games, which Calgary is preparing to host from Feb. 27 to March 2.
And the unwavering, enthusiastic spirit of Special Olympics Canada was on full display on Wednesday, during a launch for the games’ school program at the Seven Chiefs Sportsplex in Tsuut’ina Nation, just west of Calgary city limits.
Over 1,000 students in grades 4 to 6 from Calgary-area schools flowed into the gymnasium of the Chief Jim Starlight Centre to hear from Special Olympics athletes, former and aspiring Olympians, sport ambassadors, and others involved with the upcoming games.
Cheryl Bernard, co-chair of the 2024 games and a former Olympic silver medalist in curling, said the school program is a great way to build momentum for the upcoming games among Calgary’s youth.
“This is really who the games are for,” she told reporters. “To have these kids here in person, it’s exciting. I think it just shows the value of these Special Olympic Games, and the value of promoting inclusion in our province and our country.”
Through the Special Olympics Canada Winter Games School Program, which is put on by RBC, participating schools receive an activity book and cheer kit. Classrooms are encouraged to complete the activity book together ahead of time, and then cheer on the 1,300 athletes who will come to Calgary for the games this winter.
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One of the games’ mandates, according to Bernard, will be to raise awareness and education of intellectual disabilities. She argued the school program is a great way to bolster a sense of inclusion and acceptance among youth.
“I think it’s so important for all of us to see we’re all the same and we should all be included,” she said. “We just have different abilities than others do. To be able to have them on the stage and show their strength, determination, and abilities is the most important thing, and why I stepped up to co-chair.”
‘You can do anything you set your mind to’
Highlights from Wednesday’s ceremony included a sneak-peek video about John “Jackie” Barrett, a powerlifter from Nova Scotia who won 13 gold and two silver medals over four appearances at Special Olympics World Summer Games. Barrett, dubbed the ‘Halifax Hercules,’ was the first Special Olympics athlete inducted into the Canada Sports Hall of Fame — an honour he received in 2021.
Wednesday’s event also included a speech from Team Canada bobsleigh athlete Eden Wilson, who hopes to qualify for the 2026 Olympic Winter Games. Born in Manitoba but raised in Calgary, the 26-year-old athlete shared the story of her career in bobsleigh, which began while she was attending Mount Royal University.
Now a member of the national bobsleigh team, Wilson said she relishes the opportunity to help inspire the next generation of athletes.
“It definitely pulls at the heartstrings to be able to tell kids, ‘You can do anything you set your mind to’ and then they come to you and say ‘I’m so excited to be able to do this,’” she said, a few minutes before her speech.
As a bi-racial athlete (Wilson is both Métis and Black), Wilson said she wanted the kids on Wednesday to know that they can chase their dreams regardless of what adversity they face — a message she said relates well to the spirit of Special Olympics.
“As an athlete, it’s never going to be about the medals,” she said. “It’s going to be about the idea that kids can see someone at the table who looks like them, doing great things. Therefore they think they can do great things as well.”