Athletes play hard, but Special Olympics about friendship
'They're so hyped, they've been hyped the last few months,' says parent
For many athletes the Special Olympics Canada 2018 Summer Games are more than an athletic competition. They are a dream come true.
James McDonald is playing basketball for Nova Scotia at the national event being held in Antigonish this week.
"I joined in 2016," he said Wednesday. "I build a lot of friendships here and I just really enjoy playing basketball with my friends.
"I never thought two years ago that I'd be here playing with teams [from] across [Canada]."
It is the second time the national event has been held in Nova Scotia.
It's hard to recognize Antigonish, a town of 4,000. It is packed with more than 1,000 athletes, 200 coaches and thousands of fans from all across the country.
A quarter of the town's population is volunteering at the event.
There is competition in athletics, basketball, bocce, golf, rhythmic gymnastics, powerlifting, soccer, softball and swimming.
To compete in the games, athletes must qualify at local and provincial levels.
In the stands, basketball player Lennie Porter watched Nova Scotia play.
His team, representing New Brunswick, was due to play next.
"I'm here to play basketball … we are going to go out and play and hopefully we can do our best to win. I'm so pumped to be here."
John Hodgin, Porter's coach, said the athletes look forward to the competition every year.
"It just means the world to them," he said. "They get to go out and have fun. The whole spotlight's on them and that's what they love."
Parents agree. The stands near the track are packed with fans with signs and T-shirts supporting their province and athletes.
Brenda Fraser and her family are watching their children compete in four events for Nova Scotia.
"They're so hyped, they've been hyped the last few months" she said. "We're watching our kids do their personal best. The friends they're meeting — the teams are fantastic."
Shelly Latta is cheering on her daughter, Emily, who competes for Nova Scotia in athletics.
"It's an absolutely awesome community. Emily didn't really have a place in regular sports so we got involved with the Special Olympics. It's an awesome extended family."
Athletes can receive medals in their events, but that's not the main objective.
"My favourite part is playing with my friends, making new friends and really enjoying the sport," says McDonald,
It's the camaraderie that impresses Sports Minister Kirsty Duncan.
"The teams are playing, and playing hard, against each other, but they're also cheering on when someone makes a good shot."
Duncan announced plans this week for the federal government to invest $16 million over five years to support the Special Olympics. She hopes it will change the public perception of people with an intellectual disability.
"When those athletes marched into the arena, the sound was deafening," she said. "They are champions when they arrived here. They have won the right to [represent] their provinces and territories, and I want all the athletes to know the whole country is cheering them on."
Porter's family is cheering him on from their home in New Brunswick. For them, he has a message.
"Hi Mom and Dad. I love you guys back home. I'm going to make you guys so proud."