Close-up: Disabilities don’t alter an athlete’s desire to compete

When it comes to sports, so much has changed over the years and not all of it has been for the better. Money has changed professional sports for the worse.

  • May. 7, 2011 1:00 p.m.
Kelowna Special Olympics athlete Kelsey Wyse is all smiles after completing a swim at the H2O Centre.

Kelowna Special Olympics athlete Kelsey Wyse is all smiles after completing a swim at the H2O Centre.

When it comes to sports, so much has changed over the years and not all of it has been for the better. Money has changed professional sports for the worse. A lot of the fun has been taken out of youth spor ts as organizations and parents put the emphasis on making it big and cashing in.

It’s all become so business-like it makes you wonder where the passion, the fun and purity of sport has gone.

But there is hope.

In Kelowna there is a sports organization that is allowing athletes to chase their dreams of winning championships at the same time as it helps those athletes overcome adversity in the real world. It is altering the lives of those involved in profound ways.

It’s called Special Olympics and within the organization there are a group of athletes and coaches with a love of sport that is second-to-none.

“The competition is so pure,” says Special Olympics coach Garth Vickers. “Anytime we host an event anyone who comes out as a volunteer can’t say enough about the interaction of the athletes and the pure sport of it.”

Purity. That’s what seems to be missing from sports. There are so many agendas, so many issues, so much politics.

Not in Special Olympics though. In Special Olympics there is beauty and passion and purity.

And it begins and ends with the athletes.

Kelowna athlete Kelsey Wyse is as competitive an athlete as you will come across. The owner of some 50 Special Olympics medals, Wyse, 26, is a two-time world silver medalist in alpine skiing but has now set her sights on the Canadian championship in the 400 metre freestyle swim.

Right now there is a swimmer out East who she hasn’t been able to beat.

“I’m trying to get more speed,” says Wyse of her workout schedule, which has her swimming or lifting weights six days a week. “I’ve tried to beat her so many times.”

“She’s a tiger when she gets out there,” says Kelsey’s mom, Donna, with a smile. “She is very competitive.”

After a normal birth, Wyse suffered a seizure at 18 months old that left her with epilepsy. As a teen another seizure caused significant brain damage. Neuro surgery would halt further damage and Kelsey has been seizure-free ever since.

Her brother Ben is also a special needs child, and when Kelsey was 13 her family turned to Special Olympics for both kids. It was a move that would change their lives.

“The biggest thing was peer friendships,” says Donna. “We noticed a difference in how they carried themselves.

“It opened up a world for both of them. I see such a difference in her.

“It changed Kelsey and Ben’s lives and also our family because now we can see them happy with an organization that was positive. It changed our world and theirs.”

And for Kelsey it tapped into that competitive streak that was obviously natural to her.

She is considered one of the top Special Olympics swimmers in Canada. She is relentless in her attempts to become the best and that rubs off on the other athletes involved in Kelowna Special Olympics.

“There is a joy in her competition,” says coach Garth Vickers. “And there is fun when she is interacting with her peers. She does it in such a natural and friendly manner that it rubs off on people.”

Now Kelsey and her brother Ben live semi-independently with each other. As Kelsey chases her dreams of winning more competitions, Ben also plays in Special Olympics as a recreational athlete. Of the more than 200 Special Olympic athletes in Kelowna, the pair represent each end of the spectrum. Some choose to become elite athletes, others do it just for recreation.

“You have two extremes and the one organization allows them to go either route,” says Donna. “Now we see Kelsey and Ben talk with pride about who they are and what they have accomplished through Special Olympics. That’s the special thing: The sense of self and self respect that Special Olympics gives that, a lot of time, our world doesn’t allow them to


Kelsey fully understands the changes her involvement with sports has brought to her life. Just ask her.

“Without Special Olympics I wouldn’t be going out and doing stuff, I would just be staying home and watching TV and being a little bit of a couch potato,” she says. “I don’t want to sit around doing nothing.”


Another guy who doesn’t want to sit around doing nothing is Ryan Courtemanche. Just look at his trophy case.

There’s not enough room for his 170 or so Special Olympics medals to all be on display.

Now 35, Courtemanche racked up a lot of those medals in alpine skiing, swimming and track and field before turning his sights toward softball and a team that is now the Canadian champion and headed for Athens, Greece in about six weeks for the World Championships.

“This is like my Olympics,” says Courtemanche. “Even though I can’t go to the Olympics, this is the big stage for me.”

Courtemanche, who suffers from a learning disability, is at a unique point in his Special Olympics career. As an athlete he has done a lot.

He’s been to international competitions in Australia and in North Carolina, and all across Canada.

He’s won world and national medals. Now he’s thinking about what the future might hold.

“When I feel it’s time to stop being an athlete, I want to become a coach and help keep promoting Special Olympics,” he says. “I want to become a mentor the way I’ve been trained and mentored by others.”

And that philosophy of giving back and helping others is one of the philosophies of Special Olympics.

Coach Garth Vickers calls it one of the most rewarding groups to work with.

“As part of our team in Kelowna we have several athletes that are trained in our athlete speaker program, to speak on behalf of Special Olympics to try and recruit coaches and inspire the public,” says Vickers. “We have people working as mentors and we have athletes who no longer compete that stay in the organization.”

And that appears to be the way Courtemanche is going, although one gets the sense his competitive spirit will keep him playing, whether it be softball or golf or floor hockey.

He has already stepped into the role of mentor with some of the organization’s younger athletes, taking them under his wing and showing them the ropes.

“It’s an honour,” he says. “I was getting trained by other coaches to be where I’m at so I want to be the person that encourages new people. I would be proud to be a mentor, to show the new athletes what their abilities can do for them.”

That’s another thing that Special Olympics does. It taps into what

athletes with a disability can do. And in many ways watching them compete is watching athletics at its purist form.

There is no showboating, there is no arrogance. What there is, is sportsmanship, effort, love and a life-changing experience.

“Our athletes are changed so much,” says Vickers.

“Special Olympics is the dominant influence in their lives and the changes are so significant that it’s hard to even recognize it’s the same person.

“The maturation that takes place, the focus, the desire, the coming-out-of-their-shell socially.

“All those things happen for people because of the opportunities they are given in Special Olympics.”


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