Before athletes from across Canada come streaming into Red Deer for the 2019 Canada Winter Games, a downtown exhibit is shining a well-deserved spotlight on some local Special Olympic champions.
Three international medalists in track and field, swimming and speedskating — who competed from Athens to Los Angeles — are represented in the gallery at The Hub on Ross.
Like most Special Olympians, they have mild intellectual disabilities and serious athletic skills.
Among them is speedskater Mike Reitmeier, so far, the only Special Olympian in the Alberta Sports Hall of Fame.
Reitmeier was too small for hockey, so he took up speed skating and turned out to be a natural. He won the 100 metre, 200 metre, 400 metre and 800 metre events at competitions from the mid 1980s to mid 1990s.
Reitmeier eventually qualified for the world Special Olympic Games, where he won four gold short-track medals in Austria.
A former member of the Red Deer Central Lions’ Speed Skating Club, the now 49-year-old remembers being initially intimidated by competitions. But “it worked out really well, giving me a chance to meet people,” and travel the world.
Reitmeier, who works part-time in the Advocate’s press room, hopes to catch speedskating at the 2019 Canada Winter Games. “It will remind me of what I used to do.”
RDC business graduate Elliott Moskowy said competitive swimming “broadened my horizons.”
Moskowy competed internationally at the 2015 Special Olympics in Los Angeles, where he won three gold medals (50 metres, 100 metre freestyle and relay) and one silver medal (100 metre medley).
“At first, I feared talking to people who didn’t speak English,” he recalled. But his nervousness disappeared when he discovered the “friendly” competitors were willing to trade pins by communicating with hand gestures.
“Stepping out on the podium for the first time… made me feel like the proudest guy who ever lived,” recalled the 27-year-old, who’s involved in the opening ceremony of the 2019 Canada Winter Games.
Elliott had been a quiet kid who wasn’t much interested in meeting people outside the family, his mother Laurie Moskowy recalled, “But swimming really brought him out…
The former Catalina Swim Club member, who’s now with the Silver Sharks, “has friends and feels part of the community. It’s wonderful — we follow him around!” she added.
Also featured at The Hub gallery is Thomasina Payne of Lacombe, who won two gold medals at the Greece Special Olympics for 1,500-metre and 3,000-metre races.
Her twin sister, Chantal Payne, had previously won two silver medals at the Shanghai games, also for track, recalled their former coach Heather Roberts.
Roberts, who’s been working with young athletes for 35 years, has seen many blossom through sport.
“A lot of parents tell me, ‘I just brought them here to make some friends — I am absolutely amazed that they have become national champions.’”
Jerry Tennant, chair of Special Olympics, Red Deer, said some 300 young athletes and 75 coaches are involved: “Year after year, they just amaze us with their abilities and commitment.”
The exhibit continues to March 31.