Town to host Special Olympics qualifier in January

Duane Hicks

Fort Frances will welcome dozens of Special Olympics athletes in January when it hosts the regional qualifier for the 2011 Special Olympics Provincial Winter Games in Thunder Bay.
An estimated 50-60 athletes from across Northwestern Ontario, including about 15 from here, will compete in four events—speed skating, cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, and floor hockey—on Saturday, Jan. 23.
Gaby Hanzuk, local co-ordinator for Special Olympics along with Roz Calder and Ellen Caul, noted the Winter Games will include more events than these, citing curling as one example, but added “we just don’t have the athlete base.”
“Everybody says why don’t we do all these sports, but there’s about 16 sports in the Special Olympics,” Hanzuk noted.
“We don’t have enough athletes to cover all the sports,” she stressed.
Speed skating, cross-country skiing, and snowshoeing will be held at the East End Hall rink and surrounding property while Hanzuk is hoping they can hold the floor hockey competition in the Robert Moore School gym (details are still being confirmed).
Because of the massive size of Region 8 (Northwestern Ontario), the one-hour time difference between parts of the region, and the relatively small number of athletes, Hanzuk said they’ll be holding all of the events on that one day.
“All of the sports are on the same weekend,” she noted.
“Normally, in most places, they would have floor hockey on one weekend, they’d probably have downhill and cross-country skiing on another weekend, and snowshoeing would be somewhere else,” she explained.
The regional qualifier will wrap up with a banquet and awards ceremony that night at the local Legion.
Hanzuk said the qualifier is the first stage of three that will get an athlete to the World Winter Special Olympics in 2013.
Athletes from Region 8 will compete here to qualify for the 2011 provincial games in Thunder Bay.
Those who do well enough there then will be able to attend the Special Olympics Canada Winter Games in February, 2012 (the site is still being determined) and perhaps the Special Olympics 2013 World Winter Games (site also to be determined).
Hanzuk said it’s pretty exciting that Thunder Bay will be hosting the provincials on Jan. 20-23, 2011 as it is the first time in Special Olympics Canada’s 40-year history that Region 8 has done so.
“It’s quite unique,” she enthused. “Even though we are the largest of areas, we are one of the smallest groups as far as athletes and coaches.
“It’s always been smarter, economy-wise, to send our group down east as opposed to sending people from the east here.
“It’s going to cost them a couple of bucks, but the Winter Games is one of the smaller competitions and that really made it possible,” she added.
Hanzuk said the fact the provincials will be held close to here means that not only will it be easier for local athletes who qualify to attend, but make it possible for those who might not have qualified to attend the opening ceremonies.
“We have a lot of ‘adapt’ athletes in our community, which means athletes who need assistance, and they would never get to a provincial because we could not afford to send a one-on-one with any of them, and that’s pretty much what they would need,” she explained.
“So, our goal this year is to do a couple of fundraisers to help get these ‘adapt’ athletes to Thunder Bay to be at the opening ceremonies.”
Hanzuk said the opening ceremonies is really a highlight of the provincial games.
“They’re a real big deal and one of the best parts, other than the food and the dancing—the athletes love the food and the dancing,” she chuckled.
“But you know what, a lot of these athletes would never, ever experience the provincial games, and we thought this would be a wonderful opportunity for us to [raise funds].
“I think we’re going to try and get as many of our athletes down there, whether or not they’re competing, to be a part of it, to be a part of the fun, watching and cheering.
“I think it would be good for them,” she added, noting it’s fortunate the local Special Olympians and committee still have more than a whole year to raise funds.
The 2011 provincial Winter Games will host more than 300 athletes and 125 coaches from across Ontario, and feature sports competitions as well as a number of social events and activities.
While the local Special Olympics has a core group of about 10 volunteers, which is sufficient for the number of local athletes, Hanzuk said they would never turn a volunteer away.
Anyone who wants to get involved with the Special Olympics here can call her at 274-3764.