The upcoming 2017/18 sports season marks 25 years of the Special Olympics program in Quesnel.
It all started in 1993. Quesnel was host to the Northern B.C. Winter Games, and members of the organizing committee were keen to have a Special Olympics component. Prince George had been running a program for five years, so why not Quesnel?
“Some people got together and organized athletes to participate. I think it was maybe in swimming and cross-country skiing… a few events,” says program director Rick Prosk.
Prosk, a retired teacher, wasn’t involved at that time, but he’s heard the story.
From there, the group – mainly parents of children with intellectual disabilities – decided to continue with the program, and got sanctioned by Special Olympics B.C., the overarching body that governs all Special Olympics community programs and sporting events.
“A lot of us have children who are intellectually disabled, so that’s how it got started and that’s what has kept a number of people involved,” explains Prosk.
Prosk himself didn’t get involved until later.
“My wife got involved first; she is on the executive. Our daughter Paulette, who has down’s syndrome, joined Special Olympics in the late Nineties.
“I got started coaching in 2004. I had coached all my other kids in sports, so when my youngest son finished high school, I was looking for some way to continue. Special Olympics didn’t have a soccer program, so I proposed it. My daughter started playing and is still playing, 13 years later.”
If you build it, they will come
Quesnel’s Special Olympics program now has around 65 athletes and 13 separate sports programs, including curling, basketball, soccer, swimming, floor hockey, track, alpine skiing, five-pin bowling, snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, rhythmic gymnastics, golf, and athletics. Some are strictly summer or winter programs, and some, like swimming, run all season.
Most of the programs that have been added to the roster over the years have come about organically.
If a parent or coach is interested in seeing a sport added to the list, it’s easy enough to do.
As long as the sport is sanctioned by Special Olympics, Quesnel is allowed to offer it. The trick is finding members of the community to coach. Prosk says the program currently has about 25 volunteer members taking part.
Prosk’s main task as program director is to ensure the programs have what they need to run smoothly: coaching, equipment, space to practice and a schedule.
“It can be hard because we’ve grown to the point where we need a certain number [of volunteers] to sustain the programs we have.
“I’d hate to have to shut a program down. Even if we only have a couple of athletes involved… if they’re keen to do it, you want to find the people to keep the program going.”
Prosk finds himself giving pep talks to potential coaches.
“People think they need to have coaching experience, but no, we don’t have those expectations. We’d like someone who knows about the sport, but they just need to have an ability to relate to the athletes.
“Sometimes it’s hard to get that across to people. It’s a matter of me saying, ‘I have faith you can do it, but do you have the confidence to carry it out?’”
Prosk says he’s become more and more involved as the years have gone by.
“If I have an idea, I feel like I can’t propose it for other people to do. For a number of sports that we have, I’ve become directly involved because it was something I wanted to see as part of Special Olympics. So therefore I feel like I have to have some involvement.”
More than just sports
The benefit of the Special Olympics program for the athletes is undeniable. They of course see all the obvious advantages of becoming more active, but Prosk says there are layers to the ways the program contributes to the lives of the athletes, and to the community as a whole.
“For the 65 athletes, each one of them would potentially benefit in a different way,” says Prosk.
“For instance, we have an athlete who’s 13. Every year we go to a meet in the lower mainland, and this year for the first time he went on a trip without his mother.
“It was huge for both him and his mother. It was part of a transition. Maybe in the next year or two he’ll be ready to travel on his own with coaches and athletes. It was a big milestone.
“I try to look at not just the sports experience and the benefit you get from exercise and being outside… the nice thing about Special Olympics is the camaraderie that develops,” Prosk continues.
“We have a number of athletes for whom this is their main social outlet. It becomes like family for them.”
Debbie Terlesky, whose 22-year-old son Brock has taken part in the program since he was 14, echoes the sentiment.
“We had to push Brock to do it a little bit at first. He still had a hesitation about being classified as a Special Olympics athlete; he didn’t want to be pigeon-holed as ‘special needs’.
“But he got over being uncomfortable and his dedication to the sport and the coach won over. The athletes that he was intimidated by back then are now his treasured friends. They’ve become like family to our entire family,” she explains.
And the athletes’ experiences translate to the community at large.
“If you were to survey [our athletes], probably 80 per cent have jobs. Special Olympics says their statistic is 50 per cent. So we have more than average working in the community, and being involved in Special Olympics really boosts the self-esteem and confidence of the athletes in being able to interact with people.
“All of that helps them in whatever job they are doing. I think Special Olympics can take some of the credit for that,” says Prosk.
And Prosk says he and the other volunteers take every opportunity to create bigger life experiences.
“We went to a track meet in the lower mainland, and it happened that the Whitecaps [soccer team] were playing. It made sense to me that we could take the Skytrain and go to a Whitecaps game. There were a whole bunch of people, even some of the coaches, who had never been to B.C. Place… some had never ridden the Skytrain before. So part of the goal is to build these experiences,” he says.
Special Olympian Brock, who has autism, says the program has definitely boosted his confidence.
“It’s been a slow transformation to recognition that I can do these sports,” he says.
“[Being in the program] has helped me to make decisions with less hesitation; the confidence has helped with that.”
Athletes at heart
Sept. 13 will see athletes flocking to sign up for their favourite sports for the coming season.
The minimum age to take part is two, but Prosk says the organization generally does not get athletes that young.
“Our youngest athlete is nine. We have a few teenagers, and some older athletes in their 60s.”
Prosk says he and the other volunteers maintain the goal of having athletes compete in every event at some point during the season.
“It might only be a trip to Prince George for the day, or it might be a weekend trip.”
Athletes can also sign up for a non-competitive fitness program developed by Special Olympics, called Club Fit. The Quesnel organization has also added a monthly cooking class.
“That’s a local thing we added to the Club Fit program. We have a number of athletes who are living independently. Even though we were educating them on nutrition, we felt there wasn’t a practical component to support that.
“The athletes are shopping and cooking for themselves and we thought, ‘Maybe they are missing some hand-on experience.’”
Brock took part in the program and says it was a lot of fun.
“It was just a fun way to eat healthier. I liked the idea of it, and I gained some new skills from it.”
At the heart of what Special Olympics does is try to instill in the participants that they are athletes.
“We want them to see themselves as athletes first, so this is how you should live when you’re an athlete, this is how you should eat,” explains Prosk.
And this translates to the general public as well.
“When Special Olympics started, there was this thought that, ‘It’s kind of a nice thing for them to do. It keeps them busy.’” Prosk grimaces.
“The general public didn’t see them as athletes. In September, though, a number of them are going to be inducted into the Hall of Fame. That again raises their stature to that of anyone else in the community who competes in sports.”
On the whole, Prosk says Quesnel has embraced the Special Olympics organization.
“We get a lot of support and co-operation from different groups,” says Prosk.
“In the time I’ve been involved, Special Olympics has become much more relevant to the community.”
And it looks set to continue to be so – Quesnel’s athletes are going from strength to strength in competition. Watch this space: you can bet there’s even more in store for the organization’s 25th year.