Transitional vocational students embrace the moment at Special Olympics Canada Winter Games

MRU program well represented during week of competition
David Hall carries the torch for Special Olympics Canada Winter Games.
David Hall carries the torch for Special Olympics Canada Winter Games. Photograph Gavin Young/Calgary Herald.

Calgary rinks, area ski hills and other athletic venues were abuzz with activity recently as hundreds of athletes competed in the Special Olympics Canada Winter Games 2024.

Students from Mount Royal University’s Transitional Vocational Program (TVP) were well represented right from the start as David Hall participated as a torch bearer and relay representative leading up to and for the opening ceremonies.

TVP participants also included Michael Nauss, who competed in five-pin bowling; Jerome Rakochey, who was on the official cheerleading team and the exhibition floor hockey team that played against Calgary Flames alumni, and Lily Manywounds, who was a ceremonial dancer at the event’s opening ceremonies.

Michael Nauss competed in five-pin bowling.
Michael Nauss competed in five-pin bowling. Photograph Special Olympics Alberta.

Special Olympics is a global grassroots movement bringing community programs and competition opportunities to more than 4.5 million children, youth and adults with intellectual disabilities across 170 countries worldwide. In Canada, thousands of children, youth and adults participate with the help of volunteers in programs run with the support of local sport clubs across 12 provincial and territorial Chapters. To compete in the Canada Games, athletes first qualify in provincial games.

“Carrying the torch was fun, very exciting," Hall says, who was chosen from hundreds of athletes for the honour. Hall is enrolled in TVP’s Employment Preparation Certificate Program and has competed in Special Olympics for 20-plus years — mainly in track and field. Leading up to the Games, Hall toured the province by bus “all over the map” with the torch relay team and officials, making stops in various communities.

Rakochey, who is also an Employment Preparation Certificate Program student, participated on the cheer team, urging and encouraging athletes in skating and floor hockey to do their best, with some of them winning gold medals.

The cheer team also welcomed arriving athletes at the airport. It was his first experience with cheer, but Rakochey says he’d like to do it again.

Jerome Rakochey with the official cheerleading team at the Special Olympics Canada Winter Games.
Jerome Rakochey, second from right, with the official cheerleading team at the Special Olympics Canada Winter Games.

Another highlight for Rakochey was playing floor hockey against the Calgary Flames Alumni squad. “The game was really good,” he says of taking on a team that included Flames alum favourite and Stanley Cup champion Jim Peplinski.

Manywounds, a part-time TVP student from Tsuut'ina Nation, performed in the opening ceremonies and said the experience was a happy one.

“I performed the traditional dance on a big stage and wore a special dress. It took a long time to get ready, and my sister helped me,” she says. “It was fun to dance in front of all the people. I liked when they all cheered.”

Nauss, also a part-time student, competed in five-pin bowling on the Calgary 2 team. While it was his first time competing in the Special Olympics, he’s been bowling since he was 14 (and golfs in the summer).

“The Special Olympics were great. You meet a lot of people and have a lot of fun.”

Lily Manywounds performed a traditional dance at the Games' opening ceremony.
Lily Manywounds, right, performed a traditional dance at the Games' opening ceremony.

Once the competition began, Nauss was all business, however, as he had won gold at the provincial level in order to qualify for the event.

“We shook hands (with our opponents), but we were pretty focused on our games,” he says. “My second game I bowled a 212 and got three strikes in a row.”

At Mount Royal University, the Transitional Vocational Program provides a variety of creative, innovative and collaborative post-secondary experiences that foster personal, professional and academic growth for adults with developmental disabilities. Its hallmarks are: empowerment, teamwork, professionalism, accountability and respect.

“The Special Olympics empowers people with disabilities through inclusion and promoting personal growth,” says Lorna Ludwig, program administrator for TVP.  “It builds self-confidence and resilience while enhancing physical health and social skills through sports. It also challenges stereotypes, promotes understanding and celebrates diversity.”

More than 800 athletes participated in events that ran from Feb. 27 to March 3 at a number of city and area venues with the help of more than 1,500 volunteers. The Games welcomed more than 4,000 visitors to Calgary from across the country, including athletes, volunteers, family, friends and officials.

Mount Royal’s Transitional Vocational Program has been providing education and opportunities for more than 50 years.