Canadian athletes Jennifer Jones, Catriona Le May Doan, Mark Tewksbury and Scott Moir mingle with Special Olympic athletes in Thunder Bay this week.

Decorated Olympic swimmer Mark Tewksbury left Thunder Bay this week inspired by the spirit of the Special Olympics Canada Winter Games.

As a member of the Board of Directors for Special Olympics Canada, Tewksbury was in the city to cheer on the participants.

But the experience took on a deeper meaning for him, hitting close to home.

“I know how it feels to be part of a community that’s sometimes excluded,” he says, describing how he ended up coming out as a gay man.

Tewksbury found solace in sport, which he says helped him to overcome challenges, to build self-confidence and to find lasting friendships.

“In these Special Olympics we see athletes experiencing the same thing,” he figures. “I felt like I had an affinity for the Special Olympics.”

Spectators crowded the various venues to encourage and congratulate the competitors from across Canada.

“The whole community has really embraced the Games and athletes and family,” says former Olympic speedskater Catriona Le May Doan, who joined Tewksbury in the same capacity.

“I was here for a board meeting and to see all the athletes and sponsors,” she explains.

The national event impressed Le May Doan and others she encountered.

“I’m hearing praise after praise about how the Games were run, the food, the welcome and the continuous excitement,” she says. “(The organizers and volunteers) have done an amazing job.”

She found the experience endearing.

“It’s inspiring every time to see them (the participants) compete,” says the accomplished athlete. “The first thing they do, regardless of results, is hug each other. The camaraderie and spirit is something we could continuously learn from and be inspired by these athletes.”

Le May Doan said the Special Olympics in Thunder Bay has exceeded expectations.

“People are sometimes surprised by the high level of competition,” she says. “It’s about inclusion and also about sport and pushing your limits.”

Curling star Jennifer Jones and retired Olympic ice dance champion Scott Moir were also on hand in Thunder Bay this week.

Moir, who along with Tessa Virtue formed one of Canada’s most famous Olympic duos, addressed the crowd at the opening ceremony of the figure skating competition on Thursday at the Tournament Centre.

He is part of the Champions Network, a group of Olympians, who support Special Olympics athletes. Moir took close to 30 athletes on tour to perform in a show.

“It’s a huge boost for so many of these athletes,” he says. “It’s uplifting. It’s been emotional. It’s one of the special moments of my life.”

In his speech, Moir acknowledged the dedication of coaches, whose talents have contributed to a dream taking shape.

“They’ve all taken time out of their lives to support your dream,” he said in his speech. “You are truly an inspiration to all of us in the skating world.”

Moir was also moved by the spirit of the Special Olympics.

“It’s done more on a pure level,” he says. “It’s sport done for the right reason. When the athletes walked in during the opening ceremonies, they were exuberant. There was overwhelming joy.”

During the torch run and the lighting of the cauldron, he says this feeling was inescapable, bringing to mind the Special Olympics anthem, encouraging participants to be happy to be part of the experience and to be happy with each other.

Moir recognizes how difficult it is to compete at a high level.

“We were blessed to have a long career,” he says. “A lot of the athletes wait years to get a shot at the Special Olympics.”

“For a lot of them, it’s the end of a long journey — a lot of perseverance,” he says. “It started out as a dream — competing at a national level — coming to fruition.”

John Van Lierop of London, Ont., is one of the many faces behind the scenes who have helped make the competitors’ dreams possible.

He volunteered as a lap counter at the speedskating venue.

Certified with Level 3 qualifications through the Ontario Speedskating Association, he has volunteered over the past 22 years at three regionals, one provincials (in Thunder Bay in 2011) and most recently, at one nationals.

“Thunder Bay is very welcoming and warm, compared to the last time we were here (in 2011) — in minus 40 degrees (Celsius),” he chuckles.

Sporting a hat full of collectable pins, Van Lierop was an unmistakable figure at Delaney Arena. He says he has 300 pins in his collection and treasures a Thunder Bay police pin he got at the 2020 Special Olympics and one from the Royal Canadian Mounted Police from the 2011 Games.

“There’s more crowd participation,” he says. “It’s hard to hear. The stands were full. The enthusiasm from the crowd — you can feel it going towards the athletes. The fans are cheering everyone.”

Volunteer Diane Imrie, who was co-manager of figure skating, drafted Team Ontario figure skater, Katie Xu, of Stittsville, Ont., along with several of her friends in a club they call the “Birthday Club”.

It was part of the Draft an Athlete program.

Imrie, who is also the executive director of the Northwestern Ontario Sports Hall of Fame, was delighted to be able to see her athlete compete.

“It was serendipitous that I was a volunteer with figure skating and it happened to be the sport our athlete was drafted from,” she says. “We were able to meet when she took the athletes’ oath at the figure skating opening ceremony, which was really special.”

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