Brothers of sorts, Matthew Lai is nestled up beside his B.C. Special Olympics teammate Eric Pahima on the kiss and cry bench at these Canada Winter Games, subtly eyeing the two roses clutched in his friend’s right hand.
With a slight, almost inaudible, wisp of sadness in his voice, Matthew leans over and says, “I didn’t get one of those.”
There is no pause. The words are barely out of his mouth, and Eric reaches out and passes a flower to his friend.
“You can have one of mine.”
Instantly, both faces break out in broad, ear-to-ear grins. They hug. Around them, witnesses to this spontaneous act of kindness look at one another as if to say, “try not to cry. I dare you.”
There is little doubt, little argument, that these Special Olympians help represent the de facto true spirit of these Canada Winter Games.
It goes without saying that figure skating, by nature, is a sport charged with emotion. Smiles and tears, laughs and hugs, are a fabric of its soul.
But these competitors all wear smiles, teaching us in the process why we love sport, why we stand and cheer. Not just for the medals, but for daring to dream, for being witness to personal triumph and perseverance.
The tears? Those were reserved for everyone else in the building.
“This is what sport is all about – having athletes go out and perform and do their best,” says Brittany Baril, Special Olympics coach of Team Newfoundland Labrador. “That is what these athletes show us. Go out and work your hardest, give it your all. Nothing else really matters.
“Every so often, all of us can lose our passion along the way. These athletes remind us how important it is to keep that passion. They always have it.”
“Sometimes it’s hard to hold it together,” Baril adds. Her voice begins to waver, and she has to take a breath.
“It’s a unique bond we share, and it is very rewarding,” she continues after a pause. “As a coach, you just want to teach the love of skating and give something back. That’s what it is all about. The love of skating, no matter what level.”
Like Baril, Team B.C. Special Olympics figure skating head coach Jessica Chapelski has wiped away her fair share of tears at these Games.
“I’ve lost count how many times I’ve cried,” admits Chapelski. “I don’t even try to keep count anymore.”
“These athletes belong here, belong on this team, and it means the world to them. They are cheered. They feel free.”
Standing alongside the personable Michael Sumner, one of her athletes from Team Yukon, coach Michelle Semaschuk has a tough time keeping her emotions in check, as well. As she speaks, tears well up in her eyes and she stops, caught up in the emotion of the moment.
As if on cue, Michael leans over and gives his coach a warm hug, for comfort.
It seems hugs are mandatory here.
“To see this camaraderie, this perseverance, can be overwhelming,” admits Semaschuk. “You see the passion, the love in their eyes. Michael continues to grow into this wonderful young man, with the biggest heart you’ll ever see.”
“This has been a tremendous experience for all our athletes,” says Cathy Skinner of Team Ontario. “It’s incredible. To see the crowd, even the judges, clapping and cheering means everything to these athletes. They’re all friends. They want to sit together. It’s just a life experience that most of them have never had. They don’t have tears. It’s all about the smiles. If they haven’t won, one of their friends has.”
“We could all learn from them.”
Like his fellow competitors, Matthew Lai is an entertainer, and cherishes his time on centre stage. Following his performances at these Games, he raises his arms to the heavens in triumph as he skates off, basking in the crowd’s adulation, in his moment.
“I like the crowd cheering, when they cheer for Matthew and his elements,” he says.
“I cheer for the flag of British Columbia. I cheer for trying my best.”
As it turns out, Matthew will leave these games with a gold medal. The medal, like the score, doesn’t seem to matter as much.
More importantly, he is leaving with his friendships. His memories. And his flower.