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Special Olympians compete in basketball qualifier (3 photos)

Athletes take to hard court for shot at the Special Olympics Ontario Invitational Youth Games.

THUNDER BAY – The winning team will have a shot at the national championships later this year, but Thursday’s Special Olympics basketball tournament was more about having fun.

About 90 athletes took part in the tournament, which brought together Special Olympians from high schools across Thunder Bay to the St. Ignatius High School gymnasium.

Claire Kachur, several speed-skating medals hanging around her neck, took part as a member of the host Falcons team, and said it was a lot of fun.

“I like basketball,” she said. “It’s very fun. I feel happy.”

Lesley Berardi, a teacher at the north-side school, said it’s a great event that fosters inclusivity between the Special Olympians and other students at each participating school.

“It gives the Special Olympic athletes a chance to shine in sport. We also have unified teams, which gives Special Olympic athletes a chance to play with mainstream students in a little bit of a higher level of competition as well,” Berardi said.

“It brings them together. They form partnerships and friendships.”

St. Ignatius, like other schools, has formed a leadership program that partners special needs students with peer leaders.

“It’s a buddy program for our life skills and transition students and over the course of the semester, the bond that they form is just fantastic. All of my students say it’s the best course here at the school,” Berardi said.

Organizer Keith Nutley said the school championship program for basketball is one of five sports they hold tournaments for throughout the year.

Others include floor hockey, bocce ball, soccer and track and field.

“This is a great opportunity,” he said.

“Especially in the unified (event), when you get the mainstream athletes competing with the Special Olympic athletes on the same team. It really builds inclusion within the team, and within the school when they get back to school later on.”

Teachers prepare students for upcoming events during the school day, in particular during physical education class.

“The athletes who have gone away to provincials in the past, they know this is a qualifier, so they want to compete at a high level,” Nutley said.

“It’s awesome, because for a lot of them it’s their first time flying. It could be their first time traveling to southern Ontario, and they get to do some great sightseeing while they’re down there as well.”

The Special Olympics Ontario Invitational Youth Games are scheduled for Toronto starting on May 14.

Leith Dunick

About the Author: Leith Dunick

A proud Nova Scotian who has called Thunder Bay home since 2002, Leith is Dougall Media's director of news, but still likes to tell your stories too. Wants his Expos back and to see Neil Young at least one more time. Twitter: @LeithDunick
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