By Richard McGuire
About six years ago, Special Olympics South Okanagan got the idea of holding a bowling tournament against local seniors,
The group, which helps people with developmental disabilities develop social skills and self-esteem by excelling in sports, had been honing their skills with volunteer coaches.
When they first started bowling, many of them would just throw the ball and it had little resemblance to actual bowling, explains Lee Chic, the hardworking volunteer co-ordinator and coach.
But by the time they took on the seniors, they’d improved greatly and mastered lane courtesy, they changed lanes and did everything that other bowlers could do, says Chic.
The seniors thought it would be an easy win and they “couldn’t sign up fast enough,” Chic recalls.
But when the tournament got underway, Chic overheard one senior leaning over and telling another: “I think we’re in trouble.”
They were. The Special Olympians cleanly beat the seniors. A few months later, the seniors asked for a rematch.The Special Olympians beat them again.
In the five or six matches in recent years, the Special Olympians have won four, says Chic.
“It gave them confidence and it gave the seniors the opportunity to interact with a segment of the population that they rarely or never interacted with,” she said.
Currently there are about 45 Special Olympians in the South Okanagan, said Chic. Three live in Osoyoos and the rest tive in Oliver. They participate in five-pin bowling, bocce, swimming and curling.
The bowling takes place once again at Kobau Lanes in Osoyoos, which had been closed by a fire. Swimming is in Penticton, because it’s the only official length pool in the area. Bocce and curling are both done in Oliver.
“Bocce and bowling are the two most popular sports,” says Chic. “We have two teams for curling, we usually have about 10 athletes for curling, but most of the other athletes attend bocce and bowling.”
There’s a great age range among the Special Olympians, although the majority are adults. The oldest, said Chic, will be turning 73 this year. The youngest, an up-and-coming swimmer, actually joined at age seven, though he’s now nine and is still the youngest.
There are misconceptions among many people about Special Olympics, says Chic, and she is often explaining the difference between Special Olympics and Paralympics. Paralympians have physicial disabilities, whereas Special Olympians have developmental disabilities.
“And, like the rest of the population, there’s a huge spectrum of abilities,” Chic adds.
And, as the over-confident seniors found out, there’s also a tendency to underestimate these athletes.
When the Special Olympics bowlers had to go to Penticton, they were asked how many bumpers they would need, referring to round tubes that sit in the gutters to keep the ball from going out of the lane, which are often used for children.
“I said ‘none,’” Chic recalls, adding that they do anything any bowler can do.
Chic, who has an education background working with youth in the criminal justice system, said she’s used to challenging students to do better.
“I did the same thing with our athletes because people don’t think that they are capable of the things that they are capable of. I’m always learning as well, but every time I set a bar, they surpass it. So I’ve set a higher bar and a higher bar.”
In July, a contingent of South Okanagan Special Olympians travelled to Kamloops to take part in the provincial championships in swimming and five-pin bowling.
Several of them returned with numerous medals.
Asked about exceptional athletes in the group, Chic names several of them, but she’s quick to highlight Kyle Sanderson, a swimmer.
“He’s unbelievable,” Chic says. “He is amazing.”
Sanderson returned from the provincials with a bronze, two silvers and a gold.
Another swimmer, Alberto Holz, has great upper body strength, even though he lacks strength in his legs. He also has enormous determination.
Holz took three silver medals in swimming.
Swimmer, Tolan Lloyd-Walters also took a bronze, two silvers and a gold.
“The swimmers did really well, but our bowling team came back with gold,” says Chic, singling out Bobby Brimacombe, 27, for special praise.
Brimacombe hopes to make it to the national next year in New Brunswick.
In one game in Kamloops, Brimacombe bowled four strikes in a row, followed by a spare.
Asked if he was nervous during the competition, he said no.
“I just treat it as a practice,” he replied. “I always treat it as a practice.”
Chic is grateful to the volunteer coaches as well as to the businesses, service groups and others who help with the program.
Besides the athletic skills, social skills and self-esteem that the athletes gain, they are more and more recognized and included in the community, said Chic.
“It’s remarkable to see it happen.”
With files from Lyonel Doherty.