Special Olympics Alberta creating inclusion in the game

Written by Gord Montgomery

Gord MacIntyre gets help from his caddie Leam Thistle in the qualifying for the Special Olympics Alberta Summer Games

When people talk about “growing the game,” that catchphrase seems to generally encompass only one main group — kids. However, courses across Alberta are becoming aware that another segment of the population, special needs athletes, is playing a huge role in boosting the sport’s numbers.

Special Olympians are flocking to golf courses across Alberta in ever-increasing numbers, says Johnny Byrne, the President and CEO of Special Olympics Alberta. He noted that from 2013 to 2016 the provincial program has grown by an 15 per cent, rising to 309 athletes from 268. They are overseen by 42 head/assistant coaches and 38 program volunteers in 14 communities.

“Golf started in the last six years as a formal program,” said Byrne, adding the competitive stream is four years old. “We’ve had really good reception from certain clubs, and the pros, who want to help out. We have a great relationship with the PGA of Canada as well. It’s been great to see this really develop.”

Calgary plays home to a large number of the province’s golfers where 141 athletes are involved with a wait list of 20 more. The Calgary program began 15 years ago with a single facility, the Eaglequest Golf Dome at the Fox Hollow GC, pitching in with their support.

“They have been wonderful friends to the organization, lending us the dome on a weekly basis,” said Kathy Urquhart, the Executive Director of Special Olympics Calgary. Since then, she added, the Winston Golf Club and now a city-owned course have joined in to offer up their facilities.

“Without all three of those partners we would not be able to run this program. We would not be able to grow this program, so we are significantly grateful for their support,” Urquhart stated.

Another huge supporter of the Special Olympics program is in the Stony Plain/Spruce Grove area, where the Stony Plain Golf Course bought into this idea four years ago. The Manager of Golf Operations, Jeff Cuthbertson, is wholeheartedly behind the program that sees upwards of 20 athletes take to the driving range and four-hole kids’ course every second week. As well, they have three competitive-minded players who tour the “big” course on a weekly basis.

“When you look at Special Olympics and the athletes, whether they’re kids, young adults or adults, we have the opportunity to include another group of people in what we do,” explained Cuthbertson. “Truly, if you want to grow the game of golf, it’s not just the kids. There are other groups of people not playing our sport for various reasons and if we can open the doors to those who want to be part of what we are doing, that makes us a viable business and also a valuable asset to our community.”

Ryan Tapankov from the West Central District at the Special Olympics Alberta Summer Games

The feeling of inclusion for the Special Olympics athletes who get to use a course’s driving range, practice areas and sometimes the course itself is a big deal, Byrne pointed out.

“There is no segregation. You’re just out there playing golf. It’s sport at its purest. When you’re out there on the course, everyone’s the same. Everybody shanks shots. You don’t always hit the shot where you want it to go. There’s no difference.”

Cuthbertson suggested quietly that perhaps society as a whole could take a valuable lesson from these very special athletes.

“Golf is hard. Anybody that plays understands that and for someone that has challenges and puts in the effort to play this game, they have my respect. Those that are participating dedicate themselves to it. They go at it as hard, or harder, than anybody else learning to play the game. We’d be doing a disservice to our community if we tried to exclude them from being part of our facility. I’m excited they’re here as part of our community and our golf course. They’re excited to come and that’s a great thing for golf!”

Urquhart perhaps summed up the feelings of the athletes and coaches involved in the golf programs by saying: “These partners that are so supportive of our program and we wouldn’t be able to do this without them. It’s so important for us to have these facilities to get our athletes out to and for them to be able to participate,” because while there are several courses now involved in “growing the game” in this special way, there is always room for more.

“The 2017 Special Olympics Alberta Summer Games is taking place in Medicine Hat from July 7 to 9. Medicine Hat will host the largest Provincial Summer Games with over 1,400 athletes and coaches from across the province. Athletes will compete in 11 summer sports: 5 and 10 pin bowling, athletics, basketball, bocce, golf, powerlifting, rhythmic gymnastics, soccer, softball and swimming. Opening ceremony will be held on July 7 at 7 p.m. at the Medicine Hat Exhibition and Stampede Fieldhouse. This event is free and open to the public. The sport venues for the summer games are Panorama Bowling Lanes, Crescent Heights High School, Family Leisure Centre, Connaught Golf Club and Medicine Hat Golf & Country Club. Closing ceremony will be held on July 9 at the Family Leisure Centre Kinsmen Plaza on July 9 at 2:30 p.m.” For more information visit specialolympics.ca

Inclusion in the Game

This article was originally published in the 2017 edition of The Alberta Golfer Magazine. To view the full magazine, click here.

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