Special Olympics Celebrates Athletes in Annual Gala

Ceremony Awards Athletes and Names Partners to its Hall of Fame

Former Olympian Annie Pelletier was one of four people inducted on Jan. 26. Photos Nikolas Litzenberger
Jacques Blais read out Renée Pelletier’s accomplishments for her female merit award. Photos Nikolas Litzenberger

Sebastien Hamel-Bourdeau was 21 years old when he was diagnosed with Asperger syndrome. While the diagnosis caught him by surprise, he was also overcome by relief.

“For the longest time, I wondered why everyone at school picked on me,” he said in French. “Am I really that different?”

Hamel-Bourdeau found refuge in sports. Prior to his diagnosis, he joined Special Olympics Quebec in 2012, where he started running and played team sports like basketball and floor hockey—first recreationally and then competitively.

“I think they saw some signs of an intellectual deficiency and took me in,” he said.

With the official diagnosis, he was allowed to compete in national tournaments.

He finds himself grateful for the diagnosis for another reason. For the Ville Saint-Pierre native, keeping in touch with the many athletes he calls friends would have been difficult if he was no longer able to compete.

“I could have maybe tried to keep in touch with all these people but it would have been much harder,” he admitted.

The 23-year-old is but one example of many athletes who have found solace in sports after joining the SOQ, which welcomes athletes with intellectual disabilities.

Their efforts over the course of the past year were celebrated on Jan. 26 at the annual Special Olympic Quebec Athlete Award Evening at the Molson Brewery.

The event honors athletes’ achievements in seven categories: team of the year, achievement of the year, sports club of the year, male and female athlete of the year, and male and female merit awards.

“They [teach you] to never give up,” said former Olympian and communications director at Fondation de l’athlète d’excellence du Québec, Annie Pelletier. “Winning isn’t everything.”

Pelletier, who is often referred to by the athletes as their godmother, won a bronze medal in diving at the 1996 summer Olympics in Atlanta. At the Award Evening, she was inducted into the SOQ partners’ Hall of Fame for her contributions to the organization.

“I wanted to make a difference in the lives of people who live with a mental disability,” said Pelletier, whose brother has an intellectual deficiency. “I believe that sports saved him. He’s [been] bowling for more than 25 years and I’m very convinced that sports really helped him in his life to stay alive.”

The night started off with the burning of the traditional Olympic flame, as Sûreté du Québec officer Shawn Dulude held the torch and made his way to the front stage accompanied by SOQ athletes Andrew Perez and Renée Pelletier. They then read the organization’s oath: “Let me win, but if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt.”

Prior to the awards ceremony, five athletes—Michael Gilbert, Olivier Séguin, Alexia Barré, Renée Pelletier and Hamel-Bourdeau—were congratulated for being named to Canada’s Special Olympics team for the upcoming Special Olympics World Winter Games taking place in Austria from March 14 to March 25.

“For the longest time, I wondered why everyone at school picked on me. Am I really that different?” — Sebastien Hamel-Bourdeau, Special Olympics Athlete

The excitability amongst the athletes was palpable as they made their way to the stage. On stage, they beamed.

For Hamel-Bourdeau, it will be his first ever trip outside of the country. While he likes having time to prepare and train, the 23-year-old is starting to get restless as the event approaches.

“I’ve been waiting ten months […] it’s starting to feel too long!” he said enthusiastically.

As the night unfolded and athletes were given their awards, some of the more notable achievements were outlined by Jacques Blais, host of the event and member of the Board of Directors. In 2016, the SOQ managed to raise $168,426 through many of its fundraising initiatives.

Moreover, Team Quebec, composed of 51 members, brought back 60 medals from the Winter Special Olympics at Corner Brook, Nfld. At that time, the SOQ counted up to 5,500 athletes. Today, they have surpassed that amount with 6,200 athletes—3,178 of whom are taking part in competitions.

Blais said that this increase is only a small portion of what the SOQ wants to achieve in the long run.

“In Quebec, a minimum of one in a 1,000 [people] could benefit from Special Olympics and we’re reaching out to 6,200,” said Blais. “So imagine the goal. We can always achieve better.”

The long-term goal is to reach 10,000 members. The SOQ plans to do this by getting more students involved in their school program. The organization has teamed up with elementary and high schools since 2010 in an effort to get students with intellectual deficiencies to take part in sports. In 2016, they managed to get 80 more schools involved in the cause.

According to James Lapierre, director of sports and communicating development for SOQ, the next step is to go past school involvement and get more volunteers and community commitment in order to enhance athletic development.

“We’re talking about the core level,” he explained. “We need more volunteers, we need to establish partnerships with cities to get more installations just to get more athletes. We want them to understand that you can go further—it doesn’t end here and there’s a lot more out there.”

Another way they hope to increase their membership is by stressing the importance of getting individuals from a young age. The SOQ accepts athletes starting at the age of two and onwards. For Blais, the younger the person, the better the benefits in terms of overall life quality and the higher chances that the individual will stick with their sports.

Regardless, important improvements can be seen at any age. Hamel-Bourdeau has come a long way since joining the SOQ.

“Ever since I started playing sports, I don’t want to stop,” he said. “Everyone here tonight—these are my friends. Getting this diagnosis has let me keep in touch with my friends.”

Correction: It was stated in the article that there was a regional delegation of the year award, it was in fact the achievement of the year award. It was also stated that Annie Pelletier was the SOQ communications director, she is in fact the communications director at Fondation de l’athlète d’excellence du Québec. The Link regrets the error.