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Special Olympics athletes recognized for competitive focus

Special Olympics host Canada Summer Games at UBC in 2014

The Special Olympics has come a long way since its start in British Columbia, but the general public has a skewed perception about the event, says Pam Sywulych, who launched the movements bocce program in Vancouver.

"People think, Oh, it's just the Special Olympics.' People think it doesn't matter," Sywulych said. "And it does matter."

Sywulych, 64, was first introduced to the Special Olympics in 1983 when she lived in Port Alberni. Friends working for the towns parks and recreation branch who were active in special needs communities convinced her to join the cause.

"They kind of ganged up on me and said, There's this thing called Special Olympics, lets get it started in Port Alberni,'" Sywulych said, noting the movements infancy in 1982. Three years later, Sywulych moved to Vancouver and became the areas coordinator for Special Olympics BC.

Today, there are more than 34,000 children, youth and adults with intellectual disabilities registered in Special Olympics programs in Canada. The movement includes 16,000 volunteers, with more than 13,000 trained coaches.

About 1,800 participants will be coming to the University of British Columbia in 2014 to compete in the Vancouver-hosted Special Olympics Canada Summer Games.

These Games are expected to be the biggest Special Olympics Canada Games to date, with the additional of three new sports: golf, basketball, and bocce.

The latter sits close to the heart of Sywulych.

"Bocce is huge because many community bowling alleys are closing and many of our athletes bowl," Sywulych said. "They come with those skills when they join us often."

By 2008 the bocce program had a steady footing in Vancouver with a dedicated group of athletes taking part in its three-month Special Olympics program.

"We want to make sure the sport moves forward in a proper manner," Sywulych said. "People think just because we work with people with disabilities that we work willy-nilly. We don't. We're about training and competition."

The program, she said, provides an opportunity for athletes to expand their cognitive aptitude, their physical fitness and their social skills.

Two bocce athletes, Tassie Groumoutis and Sarah Brown, both 39-year-old Vancouverites, have careers in childcare and have also medalled at various Special Olympics tournaments.

"We have very tough athletes," Sywulych said. "We don't play, we compete. I think it's important for people to realize that."

The cause behind the movementwhich Sywulych says attracted her to the Special Olympics from the startwas year-long programming that seeks to benefit the lives of individuals.

"There's a huge carry-over in sport because it gives tremendous confidence," Sywulych said. "They learn they can do stuff that they didn't know they could."

For Sywulych, who's expecting her first grandchild, this year marks her curtain call.

"I see the most amazingamazinggroup of young people who have now taken over." And now for Sywulych: "Life moves on."

Sywulych said she will return to volunteer for the 2014 Games in Vancouver. As for the possibilities of the movement one day reaching the same level of international fanfare granted another Games with a similar title, Sywulych says, "the Olympics are the Olympics."

"I don't think we could ever hope to be what the Olympics are, but the fact that we've come as far as we've come means it's only going to get better."

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Twitter: @kimiyaho