Serge Michaud doesn’t attempt to hide his feelings about the importance of the Special Olympics movement. “For me, the organization is all about providing opportunities, which is something near and dear to my heart,” he says. “Specifically, we’re providing opportunities to individuals who may otherwise not get opportunities to train and compete in the sports they love.”

Before becoming executive director of Special Olympics Yukon (SOY) 15 years ago, Michaud was a volunteer with the organization for 10 years in Quebec. “We are sport for people with an intellectual disability. That’s what we do,” he says. “Sport fosters friendship; sport fosters camaraderie; sport fosters togetherness.”

Carrie Rudolph is one of about 90 athletes active in SOY. The 32-year-old has represented Yukon twice at the national level in bowling, one of the most popular Special Olympics programs. Rudolph was part of a Yukon contingent that won silver at last year’s national games in Vancouver. Four years ago, she achieved a personal best at her first national competition in London, Ontario, which she calls “pretty exciting”.

Competing at that level takes “lots of practice and a lot of support from family and friends, and from coaches,” Rudolph acknowledges. But when it comes to describing the most important aspect of Special Olympics — and her decision to take up playing bocce at the local level fi ve years ago — she echoes a word Michaud likes to use: camaraderie. “The camaraderie of friends, hanging out with my friends and getting to know a different sport,” she says.

This winter, Rudolph added a third sport to her repertoire, becoming one of six Special Olympians in the local curling program. “I just started this past year, so I’m still tweaking my skills,” she admits.

That doesn’t mean she hasn’t thought about where she’d like to go with the sport. “Right now, my goal is national level for curling,” she says. “With practice, I think we can get there.”

Besides giving athletes a chance to develop their skills and compete with others at various levels, Michaud says Special Olympics programs offer other benefi ts. “Another positive by-product is the contribution to society and the celebration of ability,” he says. “A lot of our athletes are contributing in society through employment, through volunteering with different organizations, not necessarily Special Olympics. A number of our athletes hold fulltime jobs in our community.”

Michaud often gets calls from potential employers expressing an interest in hiring one of the SOY athletes. “We’ll say, ‘Great. That’s not really our mission, but I can certainly refer you to someone who can help with that,’” he says.

In turn, Michaud suggests, the community contributes generously to SOY, with a roster of about 75 sports volunteers and 40 event volunteers, plus a loyal cadre of supporters from the business community. “Our sponsorship turnover from year to year is very low. The impression we get is that once a sponsor or partner comes onboard with Special Olympics, they can’t wait to come back year after year,” he says. “I think our corporate partners and various levels of government see the value and are willing to support and contribute to the value we provide to the community.”

On Saturday, April 11, the annual Special Olympics festival dinner and auction will take place at the Yukon Convention Centre, presented in conjunction with Canadian Tire Whitehorse.

The $100-a-plate event will include an auction of over 100 donated items — including trips to New Orleans and one to Vancouver for an AC/DC concert — and music by Major Funk and the Employment.

The guest speaker will be Mark Tewksbury, gold medalist in the 100-metre backstroke at the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona, Spain. “You will not fi nd a more compassionate speaker on sport for all,” says Michaud, who has known Tewksbury for years. “Any opportunity he has to be around our athletes, be it in a developmental setting or in a fundraising type of setting, he embraces it. He’s a super speaker as well.”

For more information, visit www.specialolympicsyukon.ca.