By Caitlin Kennedy
Two weeks ago, the town of Crans-Montana, in Italy, played host to the GB National competition of the Special Olympics team. The Special Olympics organisation functions all year round to offer athletes with learning disabilities a chance to participate in sporting opportunities at any level. Athletes of all ages take part in competitions that are adapted to their capabilities. The Special Olympics was founded by Eunice Kennedy Shriver, sister of JFK, who believed that the principles of the Olympics could help those who were isolated in society due to intellectual disabilities. Her son now chairs the Special Olympics Committee, who’s motto is “Let me win, but if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt”.
We caught up with two of the volunteer coaches, ski instructors Mathew Rose and Sam Morrey, who coach the West Midlands group and were at Crans-Montana.
How did you first get involved with coaching the Special Olympics teams?
MATT: I didn’t know anything about the Special Olympics but the company I was working for back in 2011 became the first national sponsor of the Special Olympics GB (Winter and Summer). So through that, I found out that they had a winter programme and then found my local group, which was the West Midlands team, who I’m still with today.
SAM: A mutual friend of ours had been volunteer coaching the team for a couple of years and one day, when we were teaching at the Snow-dome, he told me that they needed some more instructors to help out. Just like Matt, I didn’t know anything about it until I went along to my first training session.
M: Since the London Paralympics in 2012, sport for athletes with physical disabilities has increasingly been on peoples’ radars, but the Special Olympics is still far less familiar to much of the World.
Unlike the Olympics and the Paralympics, it caters to all levels of athletes, not just the elite, right? So how does that work in terms of the structure of the organisation and for coaching?
M: The athletes are divided into Novice, Intermediate and Advanced and that’s the only categorising that occurs. Age is not a factor so children from 8 upwards are racing with adults of any ages (typically up to about mid 40s in our club). The races are divided into Slalom, Giant Slalom and Super G. Training is in many ways about trying to improve their general skiing ability and coaching from the side to help with the gates. When we come to big competitions, like the Nationals at Crans-Montana, the focus is more on racing style and tactics.
S: Especially at the big competitions, they’ll have a classification race on the first day so everyone will do the same course. From that they’ll group racers together of a similar time, so that everyone is in with a chance of winning a medal. So the inclusivity is an important part; even if some of the guys might not be the quickest racers in the pack, they still have an opportunity to do well.
Tell us about the coaching at Crans-Montana?
M: Different athletes have different abilities to learn. You get some skiers that can’t communicate at all but will be taking it on board. And then there are those who are quite high functioning, so you end up coaching a wide range of abilities.
Do you get much guidance in how to do that? Because presumably each athlete must have a very specific set of needs from their coach?
M: That’s definitely true. I think the benefit is that we stay with our team over a long period of time so you learn how to communicate with each person, know them as individuals and begin to understand how they learn and what upsets them. It can be far more difficult to interpret those signals than with someone without an intellectual disability. Also, it helps to listen to their carers or parents, who will be able to guide us. In many ways, I learn more from the athletes than they learn from me.
What are some of the challenges that the athletes face with ski racing?
S: A whole array of difficulties. We have some who get very agitated at the start gate because they get so nervous. Even if we try and create a non-pressured atmosphere, there’s still someone at the top and bottom of the slope with a stop-watch, plus a crowd and an environment that is different to that which they are used to day to day. We’ll have some very capable skiers that just struggle with the intensity. But then when they do get to the bottom they’re always over the moon at the achievement, even if they don’t get a medal.
M: I spent 20 minutes twice with an athlete who just didn’t want to do the course. I knew he could do it. After taking him away from everyone else, calming him down and encouraging him, he finally did it and won a medal. It’s interesting how different people react. Weather can upset some of them and parents too, so we try and keep them at the bottom.
Are there any particular memorable moments from your time coaching?
S: A lot of the most memorable moments for me don’t actually involve the skiing. When we go on the yearly trips to Pila, each night in the hotel we have an activity. There’s a talent contest one night, a fancy dress competition, a disco and it’s moments from those that stand out. I’ve been doing this coaching for 3 or 4 years now and some of the skiers that started just before I joined have really come out of their shell since I’ve known them. They are far more confident now than they used to be and they’re getting involved and socialising in a way that they never did before.
Why is the work of the SOGP so important?
M: I think the skiing is so valuable for our team because it involves so many elements. It’s not like going to a race track, doing a timed slalom and then going home. There are all sorts of experiences that they have to navigate; the mountain environment, the equipment, the logistics, the transport, different cultures (they’ve been to South Korea for the World Games). What they gain to help them develop as individuals is so valuable because it’s incredibly multidimensional and equips them with tools to cope with the world.
The World Winter Games for the Special Olympics is next year. Where is it happening?
S: Well it was supposed to be held in Are, Sweden, but the Swedish Government decided to withdraw funding, which is very disappointing. Especially for a such supposedly socially conscious country. They won the bid to hold the event back in 2018 and have recently dropped out with less than 12 months to go. So now the committee are looking for a new host venue. Holding the event requires the country to contribute $6 million out of the $14 million cost of putting the Games on. But it is a blow to the 2,000 athletes from 105 countries registered to participate. The chief executive of the Special Olympics GB was out in Crans-Montana and apparently there have been some offers from other resorts. It may end up being held in the US. There’s a lot of support for the Special Olympics there, as that was its birthplace.
What do you value most from your training of the SOGB ski team?
M: Building on what Sam mentioned, it’s less about the skiing improvement and more about their development as people. It’s such a tough world for people with a learning disability to be in. Things are getting better, but many of them have obstacles that make it very hard for them to be part of society. Some of them won’t make it and will have to be in care forever, but equipped with the right skills, a lot of them have the ability to be independent and live on their own. If we can provide a conduit to greater life skills, self worth, social abilities- all those things that we take for granted, then that’s the most satisfying thing for me.
S: We meet every other week on a dry ski slope in Birmingham. It’s not the best dry slope and it’s not in the best area. But these guys turn up every time and their enthusiasm for it is contagious. There have been times after doing a full winter away, when I think I want a break from skiing. But going and doing a few hours with our team reminds me why I love it so much and re-invigorates me to carry on. And I don’t think any other group of people could do that.