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Newfoundland and Labrador's Special Olympics soccer team is going for gold

Eddie Hynes won silver in soccer at the 2014 Special Olympics Summer Games in Vancouver, so this year he and his team are aiming to beat their personal best with a gold medal.
Eddie Hynes won silver in soccer at the 2014 Special Olympics Summer Games in Vancouver, so this year he and his team are aiming to beat their personal best with a gold medal. - Juanita Mercer

One team, one dream

Travis Maher says his favourite thing about coaching the Special Olympics soccer team is working with the athletes: “You could be having the absolute worst day of your life, come in here and you’ll leave with a smile on your face.” Travis Maher says his favourite thing about coaching the Special Olympics soccer team is working with the athletes: “You could be having the absolute worst day of your life, come in here and you'll leave with a smile on your face.”

At the Mount Pearl Intermediate gymnasium every Wednesday and Sunday evening this month, 12 athletes are training for a gold medal.

They’re Newfoundland and Labrador’s Special Olympics soccer team and for the past two years they’ve been getting ready for the upcoming 2018 Summer Games in Antigonish, N.S. July 31-Aug. 4.

On Wednesday this week, cheers of “let’s go!” and the sound of squeaking sneakers echoed off the walls of the gym as the team jogged around its perimeter.

“It’s a running sport, and these guys — they run,” said head coach Travis Maher. “If we take any significant time off, they’ll lose their shape, so they’ve got to keep going.”

He described the intense training that’s been ongoing for two years (only taking time off for Christmas and Easter).

“On Wednesday nights, they’ll run for over an hour before they even do a scrimmage. But I told them, ‘If you want to win, this is what it takes.’”

Maher said one athlete lost 50 pounds throughout the course of training.

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At the Special Olympics in Vancouver in 2014, the team won silver.

“Now we’re going back to the national games, and I’m hoping to improve this time around — we all are. They’re all going for gold — it’s the only way to beat their personal best.”

If they win gold in Antigonish, they’ll have a chance to attend the World Summer Games in Abu Dhabi next year.

“That’s what these guys are really looking forward to now — they’ve got their eyes on Abu Dhabi.”

There’s 12 athletes on the soccer team, but altogether, Team Newfoundland and Labrador is comprised of 75 athletes, coaches and staff.

At the Summer Games, athletes will compete in athletics, bocce, golf, powerlifting, rhythmic gymnastics, soccer and swimming.

50 years of changing lives

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Special Olympics.

It was founded by Eunice Kennedy Shriver in 1968 on Soldier Field in Chicago.

That initial competition was inspired by discoveries made in the 1960s by Canadian researcher Frank Hayden, a sport scientist at the University of Toronto.

Hayden’s research challenged the mindset of that time, which was that intellectual disabilities themselves prevented children from fully participating in recreation.

What his research found was that people with intellectual disabilities simply weren’t given the same opportunities to participate, and when given the chance, sports could have a major positive impact on the lives of people with intellectual disabilities.

“My aunt was involved with Special Olympics for a lot of years, and I know that really changed her life,” said head coach Maher.

His aunt was Janet Maher, a Special Olympics athlete who won numerous individual and team awards.

While undergoing chemotherapy, she still attended the national games, won a gold medal and won National Athlete of the Year.

“Unfortunately, she wasn’t alive when they presented the award, so Mom and Dad went up,” Maher said, adding that witnessing his aunt’s dedication to the Special Olympics and seeing how the teams were really like families is what inspired him to get involved as a coach.

Maher said some of the athletes on the soccer team he now coaches were pallbearers at his aunt’s funeral.

Maher’s been a coach with the Special Olympics for nine years now, and when asked what he loves about it, he gestures to the 12 athletes jogging around the gymnasium.

“These guys,” he said.

“You could be having the absolute worst day of your life, come in here and you’ll leave with a smile on your face.”

Nadia Brenton: ‘Work hard, train hard’

Nadia Brenton takes training for the Special Olympics seriously. Other than the two team practices per week, she also regularly exercises at home.
Nadia Brenton takes training for the Special Olympics seriously. Other than the two team practices per week, she also regularly exercises at home.

Nadia Brenton is no stranger to the Special Olympics – she’s been a member for almost 20 years.

During that time, she’s earned a number of athletic achievements, including gold, silver and bronze medals in athletics at the World Games in Dublin in 2003.

In all, the 37-year-old St. John’s native has won 84 medals competing in three sports: floor hockey, soccer and athletics.

The upcoming Summer Games will be her seventh national games.

While she said the Special Olympics allows her to “meet new people and have fun,” she is also dedicated to constantly improving.

Other than her twice-weekly practices with the soccer team, she follows a regular home exercise program that includes jogging on a treadmill and walking around Quidi Vidi Lake with her mother.

Her goals for this year are to “work hard, train hard… and help my team win.”

Eddie Hynes: ‘Gold medal, here we come!’

While Eddie Hynes said it “felt good” to win silver in soccer in 2014, this year he’s setting his sights on gold.
While Eddie Hynes said it “felt good” to win silver in soccer in 2014, this year he’s setting his sights on gold.

The upcoming Summer Games will be Eddie Hynes’ seventh national games with the Special Olympics.

While he said it “felt good” to win silver in soccer in 2014, this year he’s setting his sights on gold.

“Gold medal, here we come!” the 36-year-old St. John’s native exclaimed as he jogged along with his teammates.

Hynes has been an athlete with the Special Olympics for more than 15 years. Other than soccer, he competes in floor hockey and athletics.

He said he’s become healthier and happier since he joined Special Olympics. He enjoys spending time with his teammates and improving his fitness through regular exercise.

While his favourite memories are “winning medals and trophies” — he’s won over 100 medals — what he really loves about competing is “meeting more friends and giving it all you got.”

While he’s training for the gold medal, his main goal at the upcoming Summer Games is “just to have fun.”

As Hynes spoke with The Telegram at his Wednesday evening practice, his head coach, Travis Maher, walked by.

Hynes gave Maher a pat on the back and said he’s thankful for his coaches.

“If the coaches weren’t here, we wouldn’t be here,” he said.


juanita.mercer@thetelegram.com

Twitter: @juanitamercer_

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