By Jamila Cross firstname.lastname@example.org
I continue to be amazed by the depth and substantive work accomplished at a grassroot level in sport; there is an entire ecosystem of coaches, athletes, parents, clubs, and supporters who contribute daily to ensure that athletes with tremendous talent are facilitated with the opportunities to fulfil their greatest potential at every level.
I want to dedicate a three-part series featuring coaches and athletes who have very special gifts, and talents, and defy all odds, excelling and proudly representing Trinidad and Tobago at local events and the World Special Olympic Games. I am humbled to share their extraordinary stories, diverse and astonishing journeys in pursuit of worthy ideals.
Special Olympics was established in 1968 and is a global organisation that serves athletes with intellectual disabilities. Special Olympics of Trinidad and Tobago (SOTT) was founded in 1982 and has a mission ‘‘to provide year–round sports training and athletic competition in a variety of Olympic–type sports for children and adults with an intellectual disability, giving them continuing opportunities to develop physical fitness, demonstrate courage, experience joy and participate in the sharing of gifts, skills and friendship with their families, other Special Olympics athletes and the community.’’
National athletes compete in eleven sporting disciplines and last represented Trinidad and Tobago internationally in the 2019 Special Olympics World Games, Abu Dhabi, UAE. I take delight in featuring one of my favourite disciplines, aquatics (swimming), and some of the key persons who have been instrumental over the years as advocates and supporters of our local athletes in and out of the pool and the ocean.
In 1989, my parents worked at a financial institution with several sporting facilities on the compound. I watched the swimmers enter and exit the pool, and one day during a vacation camp, without ever having entered the pool, I instinctively knew I could swim.
I would eventually join the learn to swim programme and progressed rapidly under the guidance of persons like Stephen and Monique Telfer.
Stephen began his career in 1984 through the Trinidad and Tobago Lifesaving Society as a swimmer learning lifesaving, and within a year he became an instructor. He has led a long and successful coaching career, training, and mentoring hundreds of persons in pools across the country.
While leading learn to swim programmes, Stephen states that many children who attended schools for children with special needs would also participate in these programmes at pools where he was attached.
He remembers attending his first course for persons who wanted to teach special needs athletes, led by former aquatic director of Special Olympics, Bertram Allete.
Although he was already working with members of the community, the programme gave him more tools needed for coaching athletes with intellectual disability; understanding what their abilities are and working with them to get the best out of them.
Telfer continued to evolve as a coach, managing his own swimming school with his wife Monique, and in 2003, until his retirement in 2020, he was employed by the Ministry of Sport working at various community swimming pools across the country.
In 2005, Stephen was offered the position of aquatics coach for Special Olympics. He accepted and has been at the helm for the last 16 years playing a critical role in coaching, mentoring, and preparing athletes for local and international competition.
Fondly known by athletes as Uncle Stephen, he notes that aside from the technical competency as a swim coach, a key success factor for developing special athletes is patience and love.
“Many are visual learners, and you may need to give many visual cues, and lots of repetition. It is also necessary to reach out to an athlete psychologically and encourage them.”
For many of his athletes, some have been with him for more than a decade and others have competed in their first Special Olympics World Games.
Participating in sport has afforded them the opportunity to challenge preconceived notions about what was possible for their lives. Their training and competitiveness are no less rigorous than for mainstream sports. It’s a level playing field.
I have seen this first-hand, deeply inspired by two Special Olympics World Games representatives, Trent Bethel and Jaleel Pierre.
Stephen describes these athletes who are both on the autism spectrum as initially being very shy and withdrawn, responding with single words during their first encounters. Today, he emphatically states, “they have made significant improvements in their swimming technique and their personality changes are remarkable. Both athletes have become more confident in themselves, and with each other. They are never afraid to speak up and tell you what is on their mind, and to assert themselves and ask more questions.”
He notes that their level of discipline, organisation, and desire to perform at a high level are traits he greatly admires.
Telfer acknowledges that there is now greater acceptance of Special Olympics, and athletes with intellectual disabilities by the public, and more media visibility. He has advocated for greater inclusion of his athletes into local meets so they can gain more competition experience, not just every four years during the world games.
He lauded the Amateur Swimming Association of Trinidad and Tobago’s inclusion of an additional category for special athletes in the 2017 Subway Maracas Open Water Classic where special athletes competed in a 1000m swim. He also acknowledges Trinity Masters for offering athletes consistent support prior to the lockdown periods for open water swimming every Sunday at Maracas Beach.
He notes this has significantly built their confidence and technique and thanked the T&T aquatics for providing more opportunities for special athletes to swim alongside experienced masters swimmers. “It’s a key part of our ecosystem, we could never do this alone, and recognise that it takes a village to raise a successful athlete.”
I ask Stephen what he would like to be remembered for by his athletes, and parents after his decades of dedicated service. He pauses for a long time and acknowledges that he would like his athletes to remember him for the love and respect shown as a coach and father figure to many.
He holds a personal vision that, ‘‘All Special Olympic athletes will be given the opportunity to demonstrate their capabilities; – their heart, love, energy, commitment, and their spirit inspires me to become a better person. My involvement with the Special Olympics has allowed me to see the world through very different lenses.”
To become a special athlete, you must be clinically diagnosed with an intellectual disability. This person can register or be registered with an organisation such as the National Centre for Persons with Disabilities (NCPD) or similar institutions.
Once registered, you are given the opportunity to take part in domestic sport events. Your performances there help determine your chances of being selected to represent T&T as a Special Olympian. Source: https://www.ttolympic.org/
Jamila Cross played professionally for Sevilla FC women’s Club in Spain (2005). She is the mother of three boys Tishad, Akim and Santiago and a passionate advocate for access to sport and education as powerful tools for youth empowerment. Her life mission is to travel the globe building deeply connected human and spiritual experiences through a life of love, service, gratitude, and trust.