One Special Night

Athletes, Celebrities and More Celebrate in Special Olympics Quebec Soirée

Montreal Canadiens legend Yvan Cournoyer (left), Officer Pierre Brochet (middle left), Tom Quinn (middle right), and Elise Couture, the wife of the late Jean Beliveau were all onhand for the Soirée des Athletes for Special Olympics Quebec held on Jan. 21, 2016. Photo Andrej Ivanov

When co-ambassador Alexandre Bilodeau asked swimmer Valmor Quitich his thoughts after winning Athlète masculin émérite, the Joliette native replied with pride.

“I’m pretty happy to have won,” he said.

Four other athletes expressed this same sentiment as the night unfolded at the Molson Brewery, where the Soirée des Athletes for Special Olympics Quebec was being held last Thursday.

Founded in 1981 by Noella Douglas, SOQ is part of Special Olympics Canada, which was created in 1968. This annual event celebrates the accomplishments throughout the course of the previous year of Quebec athletes with intellectual deficiencies.

The award ceremony was followed by the induction of four prominent individuals into the Special Olympics Quebec Partners’ Hall of Fame for their contributions towards the organization.

Among the honoured figures were Montreal Canadiens legend Yvan Cournoyer, president of RDS Gerry Frappier, Laval police department director Pierre Brochet, and former president and Chief Operating Officer of Forzani Group Tom Quinn. The night ended with a tribute to the late Jean Beliveau, who was highly involved with the organization before his passing.

Despite the presence of many prominent sports and business figures, the spotlight was on the Special Olympics athletes, whose accomplishments and work ethic were praised by those in attendance at the gala.

“Sports builds confidence, and I’m an example of it,” said Hall-of-Famer and former Montreal Alouettes quarterback Anthony Calvillo. “I was a very shy kid, but sports gave me a lot of confidence. It taught me how to get along with other people and to be a part of a big team.

“The individuals here right now are doing the exact same thing. They are living the dream, competing and [learning] how to be in a team atmosphere, and that goes a long way,” Calvillo added.

The movement to have individuals with intellectual disabilities take part in sports is based on research performed by Dr. Frank Hayden in the 1960s. His research proved that participants would benefit from sports by improving their overall fitness and motor skills. Moreover, these athletes have also demonstrated an improved social life and increased independence.

“The athletes will have no problem [approaching] you, talking to you,” said Jacques Blais, who is on the SOQ’s board of directors, “whereas in the first years of the movement, they were extremely shy and not as outgoing as they are now.”

In the past year, Special Olympics Quebec has increased the number of young athletes to over 5,500, which they see as a step in the right direction.

“It’s been pretty amazing to see the growth across the world,” Calvillo said. “You would have never seen the Special Olympics on TV every single time. Now it [has] become a tradition and they’re trying to improve on that by getting more athletes and going to different locations.”

Their growing recognition has been supported by several fundraising efforts throughout the years. Pierre Brochet, who also serves as a member of the board of directors, is in charge of many such events. For instance, the Law Enforcement Torch Run is an organization of police officers from all over North America and they develop activities to raise money.

Photo Andrej Ivanov

In 2014, the Quebec edition raised $156,532. For Brochet, the ultimate goal is to make people realize that individuals with intellectual disabilities are just like everyone else.

“At the beginning, when you talk to people with intellectual disabilities, it’s difficult. But once you start to get to know them, you understand where they are coming from,” Brochet said. “This is what we’re trying to achieve when we organize fundraisers.”

As much as the night was about celebrating athletes for their accomplishments, the importance of parental support was also highlighted.

“It’s not easy for the parents because they have to work very hard,” Cournoyer said. “When I was young and my parents helped me to [become] a hockey player, they [gave me] a lot of support.”

The program has indirectly helped parents cope and provide them with resources to help their children succeed.

“He’s taken me on a great journey,” said mother and Special Olympics swimming coach Cathy Perez, whose son Andrew has autism. He was a finalist for male athlete of the year at the event.

“We’ve seen the changes in his attitude, and the social aspect of his life.” Perez said. “I also saw a great sibling bonding with his brother and his sister,” she added.

Jacques Blais and the rest of Special Olympics Quebec want to keep increasing recognition and distinction. The organization is often confused with the Paralympics, which is for individuals with physical, rather than intellectual, disabilities.

“We do have athletes that have physical disabilities, but the first notion is they must have mental disability or a dysfunctional disability,” Blais said.

While the athletes have some time to soak up their night, they will be looking forward to the Special Olympic Games in Corner Brook, Newfoundland this coming March. While the desire to win and compete is ever-present, the number one goal is to have fun.

“I think that whether you’re playing sports [for] the Special Olympics [or for] the Montreal Canadiens, the main point, now that I have retired, [is realizing that it’s] only a game,” Bilodeau said. “I think these guys are just having fun, while trying to achieve [their] goals, dreams of winning and competing against each other on an equal field of play. For me, that’s what sports is all about.”