I’ve watched, played and coached a lot of sports in my life. I’ve even won championships. But the 2016 Special Olympics School Programs Ontario Provincial Championships was by far one of the best sporting experiences of my life!
The Provincial Championships in Oshawa included basketball, track and field, soccer, bocce and floor hockey. They also had the very first unified basketball tournament. Students with disabilities and students without playing on the same team and competing for the same prize. There were 600 athletes, and 200 coaches at the facilities of Durham College from June 1st to June 3rd. Hillcrest High School had a basketball team in the competition and one track athlete. Glebe Collegiate also had a basketball team, and there were a number of other Ottawa high schools with athletes competing in the other sports. Ridgemont, Notre Dame, and Sir Guy all had athletes representing Ottawa and their schools. There was also a team from Cornwall (CCVS) in the basketball competition.
The competition was fierce, and the rivalries were strong, but winning and losing was just a formality. It didn’t matter who you were or where you were from, it was more important to try your hardest, have fun and be part of the experience.
The athletes and coaches arrived on campus by noon on Wednesday June 1st and went straight into their respective divisioning competitions to determine which division would be most appropriate for each team. Later that evening were the opening ceremonies.
I’ve never been a part of an opening ceremonies for any games before this. I’ve watched PanAm opening ceremonies and Olympic opening ceremonies, but being a part of the ceremony that evening was unforgettable! The athletes, with a full range of abilities, were marshaled past the Knights of Columbus into the main gym of Durham College by region.. Each school had an athlete carry a sign with their school’s name on it and the sign bearer was introduced by the MC. There was a pause in the athletes’ entrance as they announced the athletes from the Durham region who were then marched into the gym by a Pipe Band. The event was professional and televised for anyone to enjoy!
The Durham Police Services Choir sang the national anthem…well, they started to, but were quickly drowned out by the athletes and coaches. A truly moving rendition of one of my favourite songs! An elder representing the Indigenous people of the area blessed our games with a smudge and a song. The University of Ontario Institute of Technology varsity dance team performed a number to a crowd favourite song, and there were speeches from the President of Special Olympics and from the Chief of Police of Durham Regional Police Service, to name a few.
Then came the Law Enforcement Torch Run, who ran two laps around the gym and then handed the torch off to the Chief of Police and one of the athletes and they slowly and ceremoniously walked the torch down the middle of the gym to the flame that was on the stage. They had handed out hand towels before the ceremonies began and all the athletes and coaches were going crazy with excitement through it all, screaming, cheering and waving their towels. After the opening ceremonies it was off to bed because Day 2 was going to be a big day!
Special Olympics does an excellent job at creating fair and competitive divisions so that each team/athlete has (almost) equal opportunity to excel at their sport and be successful. Hillcrest and Glebe ended up in the same division. And as I mentioned, the rivalry was strong! The first game of the tournament in the McDonell division was Hillcrest vs. Glebe. Glebe won. Each team played three more games. Hillcrest finished the morning with 2 wins and 2 losses and Glebe was 3-1.
After lunch, were the playoffs. Based on the results of the round robin, teams/athletes were seeded and played a single elimination playoff round. Because Glebe finished second in the division and Hillcrest third, they had to play each other in the first round of the playoffs. Hillcrest had the lead for most of the game, but in the dying minutes, Glebe came back to tie the game. We were going to overtime.
I'm not sure who wanted to win more, the coaches or the athletes, but after a short but very tense and exciting five minute overtime, Glebe came out as victors. Hillcrest was done for the day, and Glebe was headed to the finals against Cornwall. The finals were another fun and exciting game to watch and eventually Cornwall was the successful team, but both teams played fair and played hard.
Once all the games in all the divisions were completed, Special Olympics Ontario handed out ribbons, medals and banners. In the McDonnell division, Hillcrest won Bronze, Glebe won Silver and Cornwall won Gold and got to bring home the banner. But that was just the local teams. Every other athlete, from all the other divisions, that competed went home with either a ribbon or a medal, everyone was a winner!
After the medal ceremony, dinner was served. As usual, the food was delicious. After dinner the athletes had a chance to go back to their rooms, rest for a bit and get ready for the Athletes Dance. It was a Hawaiian themed dance party with a DJ, a light show, a photo booth, snacks, and games! The best part about it was that you were hard pressed to find someone who was a) not dressed it Hawaiian gear and b) bored. It was a great evening, and I had to take a minute to soak it all in as I was once again reminded that this tournament had less to do with winning and losing and so much more to do with participation and celebration.
The next day all of the teams said goodbye and headed home. The Ottawa teams arrived at the Tremblay Road train station around 14h30 and I don't know who were more excited, the athletes to tell all their stories or the parents who were going to hear them!
The whole trip was an enormous success! I can't thank Kirsten Bobbie and her team at Special Olympics Ontario (SOO) School Programs enough for making this event such an amazing success. Also, I can’t say enough about all the volunteers who played a huge role, and were exceptional. They met all the athletes at the train station, or the airport, or the bus station, and showed us the way. They facilitated just about any request athletes or coaches had and they literally gave us the shirts off their backs. I know that pulling off an event like this does not come without it's challenges, but for the coaches and athletes who were participating in the Special Olympics Ontario Provincial Championships, June 1-3 went by flawlessly!
SOO is so great at being inclusive and making every athlete feel like they are a part of something much bigger than themselves, and at making them all feel like winners and that they have contributed towards a common goal. They have made these experiences so accessible to everyone. If it weren't for Special Olympics there would be so many people who would never have had the opportunity and the experience of riding a train, or a plane, or even being on an overnight trip without their parents. There would be 600 athletes who would never have the chance to play at their best against others playing their best on a level playing field. For the athletes and the coaches, they have created memories that will last a lifetime!
Derek Stoppels, OCT, B.Ed., B.Sc Hons HK
Hillcrest High School DDP Teacher, Volleyball Coach
Written in collaboration with Stephanie King
From Left to Right:
Back Row: Stephanie King (Coach), Skylar Robertson, Bujar Bullaku, Richard Kalonji
Middle Row: Adam Brown, Jamie McKnight, Asyah Shahzada, Jacob Cameron, Big Jake Smith, Colin Richards, Cory Seale, Derek Stoppels (Coach)
Front Row: Angela Nixon (Coach)
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