Figure skater with Down syndrome finds 'pure happiness' on ice

Meg Ohsada has won international medals, performed dance on stages a world away, and has done it all while challenging the perception of people with Down syndrome.

'Meg doesn’t want to talk a lot, but we discovered she can perform'

Meet figure skater Meg Ohsada 2:14

When Noriko Ohsada put her three daughters in figure skating lessons, it was a way to keep them active and entertained — and having all her girls in the same program was convenient for the busy mom.

She had no expectations of her girls, and certainly no idea that the eldest, Meg, would go on to compete and win medals at an international level, perform dance on stages a world away, and become an inspiration to people in her hometown of Canmore, and around the world.

Those achievements would make any parent proud, but for Noriko Ohsada the feeling is particularly strong because Meg, now 23, has done it all while also changing the perception of people with Down syndrome.

"Down syndrome is very visible from the outside," Noriko says. "People can see she has Down syndrome immediately, but they don't know what she can do from the first look."

When Meg — who has won medals at the Special Olympics and performed all over the world — is out on the ice or up on the stage, her talent and expression inspires audiences to look past their first impression, her mother says. They see her as an artist and an athlete.

"You can see her pure happiness and the effort she puts on that stage. Down syndrome, I think, comes after that."

Meg Ohsada has surprised friends, family and teachers with her innate musicality, athletic ability and talent. (Monty Kruger/CBC)

Finding her own language

Speaking has always been a challenge for Meg, a soft-spoken young woman with a shy smile. When asked what her favourite things are to do, she answers in a whisper: "I like dancing, skating and horseback riding."

But Meg's powerful capacity for self-expression through movement was evident from a young age. After starting skating lessons with her two younger sisters, Sari and Juli, her parents enrolled her in Special Olympics programs in Calgary and dance classes in Canmore.

Meg excelled.

Her talent for interpreting music, expressing emotion, and her athletic ability surprised her teachers and even her parents.

"Along the way we've found Meg doesn't want to talk a lot, but we discovered she can perform. So she became a dancer and rhythmic gymnast, and she amazed us a lot," Noriko said.

In 2013 Meg won two silver medals in figure skating at the Special Olympics World Winter Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea. Last year, she placed fourth in solo dance at the Special Olympics World Winter Games in Austria. Her visual art has also been displayed in Hong Kong as part of a show through the Indefinite Arts Centre in Calgary.

'She really feels every movement from the heart, and that’s the part that you can’t teach. That really comes from within her.' (Monty Kruger/CBC)

Hard work, dedication pays off

Like any athlete or artist, Meg's accomplishments have come as the result of dedication and hard work. She spends about five mornings a week at the skating rink and has multiple dance rehearsals.

Dana Sekulich — Meg's dance teacher and the owner of Ignite Dance Studios in Canmore — said Meg has blossomed over the 10 years they've been working together.

At the studio, Meg studies and performs alongside "regular" students, and her innate artistry serves as an inspiration to the other students.

"She really feels every movement from the heart, and that's the part that you can't teach," Sekulich said.

"That really comes from within her."

So does the drive to try new things and to strive for improvement, says Meg's aide, Stacy Bramble, adding everyone, not just those with disabilities, can learn from Meg's dedication and perseverance.

"Meg has earned her spot in being an artist," she said.

"She's in the gym, she is in the dance studio, she is at the rink five mornings a week. She definitely puts it all into this."

With files from CBC's Monty Kruger