Wrangling four Special Olympics athletes for a week of national-level competition in an unfamiliar city is not for the faint of heart.
But 74-year-old Bill Wasylenko handled it with a smile on his face.
Wasylenko is one of two coaches for Special Olympics Yukon’s curling team that travelled to the national winter games in St. Albert, Alberta during the first week of March.
It was the first time a Yukon team had qualified to compete in curling at the national level and the athletes made the territory proud when they returned with gold medals around their necks.
The team, made up of Christopher Lee (lead), Gaetan Michaud (second), Darrin Lucas (third), and Colin Sterriah (skip), went undefeated through round-robin play and then bested Alberta in the gold medal match 13-2.
Wasylenko has been working with the athletes for five years, teaching them the sport and getting them ready for competition.
“Working with the athletes is so rewarding,” says Wasylenko, “and I was so proud of their achievements at the games. Yukoners should be really proud of them for how hard they worked and how well they did.”
Wasylenko finds the volunteer work a good counterbalance to his work as a placer miner in Dawson during the summer and fall.
“I feel like fewer and fewer people are volunteering these days,” he says. “It seems like so many individuals aren’t willing to do something without getting something in return. I worry that a sense of service to the community is beginning to erode.”
He adds, “What all those individuals who aren’t stepping up to volunteer don’t realize is how much you do get from the experience of working with a community organization. The time I have spent with my athletes is intensely valuable.”
Wasylenko had the honour of being the oldest coach to attend the national winter games this year.
The Team Yukon roster also included the games’ youngest coach, 21-year-old Michelle Gorczyca, Yukon’s figure skating coach.
“If I can have half the energy Bill has when I reach his age I’ll be thrilled,” laughs Gorczyca. “The man is simply an unstoppable force of nature.”
His athletes agree.
“Bill is a machine,” laughs Colin Sterriah. “He works so hard to help us and he always has a smile on his face, even when we’re having an off day.”
Darrin Lucas agrees.
“He’s a great coach—he really understands us and works really hard to support us. We wouldn’t have done as well as we did without his help.”
Wasylenko would argue that all the credit should be given to the athletes—he just helped them along a little.
In fact he tried to convince us to write this article about them, instead of himself, and only conceded the point when it was explained that we were focussing on active senior citizens for this issue.
“I was so proud watching the team at nationals,” explains Wasylenko. “They were curling so well. Some of Colin’s shots had the whole crowd holding their breath, especially in some of the closer ends.
“The final game against Alberta was so much tighter than the score suggests. The Alberta skip was a fabulous athlete and it is a credit to our players that we were able to steal the ends we did.Especially five in the final end.”
Wasylenko, a curler himself, has spent time in coaching programs with the Whitehorse Curling Club so that he can provide as much help to his team as possible. The time and effort he has put in shows in the progress of his athletes.
“Brant Gibbon (the team’s other curling coach) and I have really enjoyed the coaching education we have taken and I think it’s been a real benefit to the team. The amount they have improved since they competed at the British Columbia provincial qualifier to now is incredible.
“I don’t think Brant and I can take all the credit for that. It’s mainly through the team’s efforts, but hopefully we were at least able to point them in the right direction.”
For now Wasylenko continues to work with his athletes when he isn’t digging in the dirt in the Klondike.
His parting thoughts during our interview?
“Everyone should find something they are passionate about to get out and volunteer for. It keeps you energized and makes life interesting.”
Amber Church is a painter, writer and sports enthusiast. You can reach her at [email protected].