Special times for athletes

ADAM WAZNY -- Winnipeg Sun

, Last Updated: 10:55 AM ET

Manitoba is ready to roll.

Tuesday marks the beginning of the 2006 Special Olympics Canada Summer Games, where 1,342 athletes, coaches and management personnel from across Canada will descend on Brandon for the five-day event -- marking the first time a national Special Olympics gathering will take place in the Keystone province.

For the athletes, having these games in their own backyard is a whole new feeling.

"Excited, nervous...but it's great," said 30-year-old soccer player Jason Pope at an impromptu press conference/pep rally yesterday afternoon. "I'm excited to have fun and hopefully win the gold and do our best. There are going to be some tough teams but we should be able to get over them."

Manitoba's Chef de Mission, Jennifer Campbell, is caught up in the spirited energy, too.

"You just can't help but get pumped up by the athletes," she said. "To me, it truly what sport is. The athletes and coaches are in it because they love it, they're working hard. They want to do well in Brandon, but they just epitomize what sport is. Doing your best -- hopefully that means a medal, hopefully that means a spot on the national team.

"But if not, that's OK, too. It's just such a great experience."

Ninety-two athletes and 31 coaches and mission staff make up the Manitoba contingent, participating in eight different sports (athletics, tenpin bowling, aquatics, fivepin bowling, powerlifting, soccer, rhythmic gymnastics and, for the first time in 10 years, softball).

The Games are a qualifying event for the 2007 Special Olympics World Summer Games which will be held in Shanghai, China.

Campbell believes the biggest benefit for the Manitoba contingent attending an event like the national games will be the relationships the athletes will forge.

SOCIAL ASPECT

That social aspect not only means lasting friendships with people from across the country, but also gives the participants an added confidence.

"It's probably a hundred times more than what they would experience (in regular life)," Campbell said. "Sports are that way for anybody, but for a Special Olympics athlete, it means so much more."

Kim Fontaine, 20, will be headed to her third national games, competing in athletics. A track addict, Fontaine will be partaking in the 100-metre, 200m 400m, shot put, long jump and a variety of relay events.

Fontaine just wants to improve her personal bests and said the opportunity to compete in front of her extended family will be the real thrill of the Brandon games.

"Some people get homesick and miss their parents," she said. "But this will be really, really good."

The opening ceremonies can be seen on CTV (tape delay) Tuesday night.


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