Olympian delivers the joy of sport to special athletes

Ruky Abdulai knows the value athletics have added to her life. A track and field scholarship at Simon Fraser University brought her to Canada from her native Ghana and she competed in the long jump for her adopted country at the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, China, as well as several other major meets around the world.

So when a mutual friend introduced her to Debra Abraham, of the Unique Get Together Society (UGTS), she was all in on Abraham’s pitch to help prepare some kids with developmental challenges and other special for an inclusive track and field in partnership with the Coquitlam Secondary School Athletic Association and MoreSports, a community-based after school sports program.

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On Friday, 83 kids from ages 8-18, including several Abdulai has been training for the past month, will compete in the first annual district track and field meet for adapted sport at Heritage Woods secondary school. The event will have all the trappings of a mini Olympics, with athletes marching into the venue, opening and closing ceremonies as well as a smorgasbord of competitions, from a 100m dash to standing long jump to javelin.

“It’s important special needs’ kids need to know they can do anything,” Abdulai said. “Otherwise they feel left out.”

Abraham, whose UGTS formed a partnership with Port Moody Minor Soccer last year to create a soccer league for kids with challenges, said giving them opportunities to learn and enjoy sports and competition can be life-changing.

“It boosts their confidence,” she said. “They feel they can do something.”

Abraham said having a bona fide Olympian show them the way has been especially affirming.

“They’re just jumping right in there,” she said.

For Abdulai’s part, working with some of the kids on a weekly basis has given her an opportunity to reconnect with the fun aspect of sport.

“We have to find ways to get them moving by creating it as a playful thing,” said Abdulai, who now works as a track coach at SFU. “When kids are happy, they’re ready to run.”

She does that by keeping her hour-long training sessions moving quickly from one activity to the next and by breaking those activities down into fun, bite-size morsels; a warm-up lap around the running track at Heritage Woods becomes a series of little sprints 30 or 40 metres down the track, the 100m dash is just a way to get to the sandy jumping pit for standing long jump practice.

Along the way, she’s seen the kids evolve from cautious wallflowers sitting on the infield grass to enthusiastic participants and fast friends, challenging each other to impromptu contests of who can run faster or throw the plastic javelin furthest.

“It gives them an opportunity to go out and explore what they can do,” Abdulai said. “They can take it to a different level.”

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