Paralympian Tammy Cunnington speaks at the Special Olympics Celebrity Breakfast on Tuesday morning in Red Deer. (Photo by Byron Hackett/Advocate staff)

Paralympian Tammy Cunnington inspires at Special Olympics Celebrity Breakfast

Paralympian Tammy Cunnington brought her message “to keep fighting” at the largest fundraiser for the Red Deer affiliate of Special Olympics Alberta on Tuesday morning.

The 11th annual Special Olympics Celebrity Breakfast packed the Harvest Centre at Westerner Park, which raised almost $15,000 for athletes in the area, chiefly to reduce fees to participate in sport.

Now more than 300 members strong, with athletes participating in everything from swimming to bowling, Chairman Jerry Tennant said he’s thrilled with the growth of Special Olympics in Red Deer, now the largest per capita affiliate in Alberta.

“It means finding more funds and finding more facilities. We added a couple sports this year including rhythmic gymnastics and some of our programs are also at the bursting point where we have to find more facilities or get more hours at the existing facilities,” said Tennant.

“Every year, the age group is starting to get younger. For many years we used to have older adults, senior citizens. We’re now finding a lot of the younger teenagers and even younger.”

Cunnington, who represented Canada in swimming last summer in Rio at the Paralympic Games, did not disappoint.

“She was fantastic,” Tennant added. “We always like to have local athletes if we can and particularly if someone has a disability that knows what it’s like to have challenges in their life. So having her here today and hear her inspiring story was the icing on the cake.”

Cunnington has set world and Canadian records in the pool as a swimmer, but on the road to the top of her sport she’s had to fight and battle her way through a fair share of adversity.

That was her main message on Tuesday encouraging those in attendance to keep fighting and find their own paths.

“I think in my mind, people just need to fight and find what they love. if their job is what they love, then great,” she said.

“If their career is what they love or their athletic life is it – just really living life, not being on the sidelines, being full court press all the time.”

Now 41, and training at home in Red Deer for the upcoming Para World Championships, she said the local community has always been great in their support for her, so she saw the breakfast as an opportunity to say thank you to all those people.

On top of that she believes the message Special Olympics Red Deer shares is an important one for everybody to hear.

“Special Olympians do have a different spirit and different excitement for their lives than some people. I think it’s important to give them an opportunity to have sports to participate in,” she said.

“Same thing for Paralympians, I couldn’t imagine growing up without para sport. It’s important to improve the quality of lives for people with intellectual disabilities and give them that opportunity to experience the camaraderie, the competition and the sport.”

Cunnington was injured when she was just six years old, volunteering with her figure skating club at the Ponoka Air Show. Two planes suddenly collided in the air, sending a propeller in her direction and leaving her with muscle and nerve damage throughout her lower body.

Undeterred, she began using a wheelchair and took up the sport of wheelchair basketball. She won gold with Canada at the 1994 World Championships and then retired from the sport.

After some time off, she joined a gym and quickly fell into the sport of triathlon. That led to another chance at paralympic participation after a few years, only to be engaged in another battle for that chance.

She originally planned to compete in Rio in triathlon, but when her class was eliminated, she contemplated retiring. Her coach brought her back with swimming.

In 2015 Cunnington won two bronze and a silver at the Parapan Games in Toronto. She then broke five Canadian records at trails for Rio and smashed her own world record twice.

Seventy athletes and 20 coaches will represent Red Deer in Medicine Hat at the Special Olympics Alberta later this summer.

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