Special Olympics athlete looks forward to returning to play

By Cody Sellar

Regan Hofley, 20, bursts off the line in a race at the 2019 Special Olympics World Summer Games in Abu Dhabi. /SUPPLIED

Special Olympics is a meaningful experience for its athletes. The shutdown during COVID-19 left them without the support of their tight-knit community.

“Special Olympics to me is family,” said Regan Hofley, a track and field athlete. “They are always there for me. They are a part of me, and I don’t know what I would do without them. Because before I was a Special Olympics athlete, I was alone in this world.” 

The 20-year-old athlete with autism says she struggled to make friends as a child. Through athletics, Hofley said she made connections and gained confidence.

She brought that confidence to the 2019 Special Olympics World Summer Games in Abu Dhabi. Hofley won gold at the pentathlon event and her 4×100-metre relay team won gold as well. 

Special Olympics is more than a single event every four years. It has programs in 172 countries, including 11 in Canada — one in each province plus the Northwest Territories.

Sports leagues and training programs are hosted year-round, and athletes gather regularly to compete in track and field, basketball, bowling, swimming, figure skating, skiing, curling and more.

“I’m sad,” said Hofley, “Because I miss being able to train with my friends and see my coaches.” 

Health concerns often accompany intellectual disabilities, so Special Olympics Manitoba cancelled programming until the province changes to code yellow, said Melissa Suggitt, manager of regional relations. Suggitt also coaches a swim team and runs a youth program in Transcona.

Last year, a four-year-old boy with autism joined her youth program. “When he started in the fall, he barely spoke to anybody. He was very shy,” Suggitt said. “But in the couple months that we ran the program, he’s a whole different kid now.”

According to Suggit, the boy’s mom said he likely wouldn’t have blossomed without Special Olympics. He speaks more, has developed skills through sport and also found a best friend.

“Just getting to see the doors sport has opened,” said Suggitt, her voice cracking. “It just warms my heart.”

Dan James, an RRC student in the Disability and Community Support program, said he works with a man whose room is filled with “more [Special Olympics] medals than you can shake a stick at.”

“He’s still proud of what he’s accomplished,” said James. 

Special Olympics Manitoba is now raising money to create safety kits for their athletes to use when programs resume. They are also exploring options in virtual programming.