Nfld. & Labrador

A league of his own: Powerlifter, Special Olympian honoured with national hall of fame induction

A powerlifter and a Special Olympian, Corner Brook's Jackie Barrett is now a member of the Canadian Sports Hall of Fame

Corner Brook’s Jackie Barrett has never shied away from life’s challenges

Powerlifter Jackie Barrett is seen with his father, Robert Barrett, following a medal presentation at the Special Olympic World Games in Los Angeles in 2015. (Courtesy of Special Olympics)

For every accomplishment, every accolade and every time his son defies the odds, Robert Barrett hearkens back to a time in the late 1970s.

His little boy, then four years old, underwent a week of testing at the IWK Children's Hospital in Halifax, where they were living at the time. The recommendation from doctors: find an institution suitable to send your child.

Barrett and his late wife Jeanee decided to ignore that advice. Instead, they researched everything they could find about autism spectrum disorder. They decided they would raise their little boy, Jackie, within the comforts of family, through a steady stream of support.

Now, Jackie, 46, is heading into the Canadian Sports Hall of Fame.

"For a young man that they told us to lock up, to now being recognized as one of the best athletes in this country — I think that just about says it all, don't you think?" said Robert. 

The Barretts received news of Jackie's induction into the hall earlier this week. Among the 2020 class are basketball star Steve Nash, golfer Lori Kane and hockey player Willie O'Ree. Jackie is being inducted in the athlete category, as a powerlifter and Special Olympian.

Jackie Barrett will join only a handful of others from Newfoundland and Labrador in the Canadian Sports Halls of Fame. He’s among the 2020-21 inductees, who include basketball player Steve Nash. (Courtesy of Special Olympics)

After that life-defining trip to the hospital, Jackie's childhood offered its own set of trials, but the Barretts found other families facing similar barriers, and together, they found strength.

"We learned we weren't alone and there was other people out there in the same boat," said Robert. "Together we moved forward."

Jackie had a keen interest in sport, even from a young age, and he got involved with the Special Olympics and started swimming.

As he developed as an athlete, Jackie's integration into the classroom with the rest of the student body at school from a special education program meant more opportunities. Jackie took an interest in football in his senior year and made his high school team.

From the pool to powerlifting

Jackie was also hitting the weights more to improve his strength in the pool and on the field. It was suggested he try powerlifting, and he went full bore into the weights.

It was around this time he was also enrolling in university, so decisions on his free time had to be made.

"With the focus on studying, the books and such, I only had time to do one activity and I got very good with powerlifting," Jackie said.

"I decided that's what I wanted to spend the rest of my Special Olympics career in."

Jackie graduated with a bachelor of commerce degree from St. Mary's University, all the while getting stronger and stronger.

A move to Newfoundland and Labrador came as Jackie was entering his peak strength and he began hoisting the province's flag following win after win.

He competed in four Special Olympics World Games for Canada, breaking records each time.

However, during this time, his mom, Jeannee, was diagnosed with cancer. After an 18-month battle, she died in October 2014.

She would be very proud to see a young boy who was facing the prospect of being institutionalized at four years of age to overcome a lot of obstacles.- Jackie Barrett

Jackie lost his biggest fan, but found new motivation in his sport — to work even harder in her honour.

In 2015, at the World Games in Los Angeles, Jackie shattered Special Olympics powerlifting records, which included a squat of 611 pounds. This was also good enough for a provincial (non-Special Olympics) squat record in the men's master super heavyweight division.

After that competition, Jackie gently placed his shoes under the bar, a tradition for powerlifters retiring from competition.

"For my mom, she would be very proud to see a young boy who was facing the prospect of being institutionalized at four years of age to overcome a lot of obstacles," he said.

"And here I am about to be inducted into one of Canada's highest sports honours."

Jackie Barrett has some fun making moose antlers. Known as the Newfoundland Moose, Barrett started coaching Special Olympics and volunteering in the community after retiring from powerlifting. (Courtesy of Special Olympics)

To honour his mother's legacy, Jackie moved immediately into coaching Special Olympians in the Corner Brook area.

The induction into the Canadian Sports Hall of Fame came as a surprise for Jackie, but he credits it to all the support he's received over the years, and the Special Olympics program.

"This is not just exciting for the 50,000 true heroes across Canada but also the nearly five million true heroes worldwide, which is the Special Olympians themselves because it definitely shows to the public that sport doesn't care who you are anymore," he said.

"It definitely makes me feel proud and makes my dad feel proud because he had to sacrifice lot … and so did my mom.… I think it will bring a lot of smiles to everyone who knows someone with an intellectual disability, especially their family members."

Robert Barrett is not surprised to see Jackie achieve this success. He said Jackie defied those odds more than 40 years ago and never let anything hold him down.

"Wherever he went … he became involved and he dedicated himself to the sport and that's where he is today — at the top of it," Robert said. "Now he's living in Corner Brook, on his own with his young lady who he's very in love with. The two of them are like two peas in a pod. So what can I say?

"He is what he is. He's the main man."

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