20 March 2018 Update

Special Olympic BC athletes at  A recent 

Kamloops 2018 BC Winter Games

Cariboo Northeast (Zone 8) Head Coach Brian Cullinane discusses strategy with Matthew Hender. Kathleen Fisher photography

Special Olympic BC athletes continue to demonstrate that their skill isn’t defined solely by the number of medals they collect. At the Kamloops 2018 BC Winter Games in late February, SOBC figure skaters, and basketball players put on a powerful display of sportsmanship that shone brighter than any medals handed out during competition.

SOBC figure skaters and basketball teams were part of the more than 1,200 athletes taking part in the 29th edition of the Kamloops 2018 BC Winter Games from February 22 to 25 and once again demonstrated their commitment to sportsmanship and perseverance.

These BC Games are distinct from Special Olympics BC Games, which are the Provincial Games hosted by SOBC solely for SOBC athletes.

SOBC athletes have been showcasing their skills in the generic BC Games for 14 years, competing in Special Olympics divisions. Prior to 2014, SOBC athletes at BC Games competed in athletics and swimming. Their expansion into BC Winter Games began in 2014 with basketball and continued in 2016 with the addition of figure skating.

Figure skating

Emily Walzak, representing Vancouver Island’s Zone 6 in figure skating, said while winning a silver medal in Level 3 competition was amazing, participating in the Games had a much deeper impact on herself.

“It was so great to represent Vancouver Island at the BC Games and have the whole arena cheering for me,” Walzak said. “It’s the largest arena I’ve skated at and it was amazing. I’m happy with my performance. I did the best I could. It’s not always about winning. It’s about doing your best and cheering on your teammates.”

Photo: Emily Walzack, left, joins coach Tess van Straaten and fellow athlete Desiree Grubell before the competition in Kamloops. 

Tess van Straaten served as figure skating head coach for the Games, her second opportunity after being part of the SOBC team that went to Penticton in 2016.

She said she is impressed with the SOBC athletes’ commitment to their sport as well as their overall attitude.

“The energy and excitement from all the athletes is infectious,” van Straaten said. ‘It’s so wonderful to watch our Special Olympics athletes’ skate their hearts out and have everyone in the arena cheering for them. We’ve had people tell us they have tears in their eyes watching our athletes skate and everyone is always impressed with what they can do.”

She says sport is such an incredible opportunity for growth and personal development and it’s the lessons she learns from the SOBC athletes that inspire her every single day.

Again, she stresses that it’s not the medal count that van Straaten uses to measure the athletes she coaches, rather it’s the ability they demonstrate to rise up if they’ve been knocked down.

“They’ve learned how to win with grace and to lose with dignity, to overcome obstacles, and no matter what, to keep trying.”

Photo: Emily Walzack celebrates after a silver medal free-skate performance at the Kamloops BC Winter Games.

The Vancouver Island figuring skating coach says when it comes to sportsmanship, SOBC athletes offer a great example of winning – and losing – with dignity.

“They’re not competing against each other – they’re competing against themselves and trying to do their personal best,” van Straaten says.

She says the integration with generic athletes at the B.C. Games is also a great learning experience for all of the skaters.

The Victoria coach says SOBC athletes feel included and don’t feel like they are treated as different, while the generic skaters learn to be more accepting and realize the power of sport transcends differences.

“It’s a win-win for both sides and Skate Canada BC/Yukon has done a wonderful job integrating us into their competitions,” van Straaten says.

Click here for figure skating results.


On the hard court, a whirlwind of action over two days saw Zone 5A go undefeated to capture gold in Special Olympics basketball.

Don Gillanders served as Head Coach of Zone 5A, which consisted of players from Vancouver, Northshore, and Richmond. Gillanders said he was impressed with his team, especially considering they didn’t practice together before the tournament started due to some of the players arriving late.

Despite the lack of practice time, the coach said it didn’t take long for the team to gel on and off the floor.

“I really enjoyed the format of blending teams together and coaching athletes from different locals,” Gillanders said, who was also Head Coach of the 2014 Zone 4 team of players from Burnaby, Delta, and Richmond that ended up losing the gold medal game in double overtime.

Gillanders said the team was also fortunate to have a pair of assistant coaches who were able to identify and use the strengths of each player on the roster. He said the coaches and athletes ended up spending a lot of time together building team chemistry and that showed on and off the basketball court.

Photo: A Fraser River (Zone 4) goes in for a lay-up in the final game of day one of competition at the Kamloops 2018 BC Winter Games.

“I attribute that to my assistant coaches, who were able to provide the right strategies for each opponent we played and were able to motivate and get the best out of each member of the team,” he said.

Vancouver Coastal 5A defeated the Zone 8 team from Cariboo Northeast 40-27 to capture gold. Zone 8 Head Coach Brian Cullinane said despite losing in the final, the Kamloops BC Winter Games was one of his most rewarding coaching experiences.

“I have coached at many levels, both in terms of skill and age of the athletes, and in many different sports,” Cullinane noted. “I have had many successes and my share of disappointment too.  All that being said, this was hands down the most gratifying and enjoyable coaching experience in my coaching career.”

Photo: Libby Sherwood of Cariboo Northeast (Zone 8) celebrates with her silver medal.

Cullinane said the wide range of players from Prince George and Quesnel, along with the varying age difference, ranging from ages 13 to 40, made the silver medal all that much more enjoyable.

“The semi-final game was the game of the tournament and was hugely enjoyable thanks to this group of great players,” Cullinane said after his team upended Vancouver Coastal, who represented Zone 5, by a score of 45-41.

Cullinane says what impresses him most about his team was their kindness towards everyone they come into contact with and their resilience. Looking back at the tournament, the team bounced back very quickly after its opening game defeat, a 45-36 loss to Vancouver Coastal 5A, said the coach.

“Even after losing the gold medal game, their frowns didn’t last long and they were very proud of their accomplishment – a silver medal is a big deal,” Cullinane said.

Click here for basketball results.


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