Jackson Tomlinson was enthralled when Canadian speedskater Charles Hamelin won gold in the men's 500-metre final and raced over to embrace his then-girlfriend Marianne St-Gelais in one of the most memorable moments of the 2010 Vancouver Olympics.
An excited Tomlinson, then eight years old, turned to his mother Jennifer and said speedskating was the sport he wanted to try next so that he too could become an Olympian.
"I always liked going fast," said Tomlinson, who joined the Milton (Ont.) Speed Skating Club. "I'm a big fan of NASCAR and this is essentially NASCAR on ice. I'm just glad that I have something to do that I enjoy.
"I'm a teenage boy. We get bored. So I go out and skate."
A decade later, Tomlinson has won two golds and a bronze medal at the Special Olympics National Games and he hopes to make Team Canada for the 2022 Special Olympics World Winter Games in Kazan, Russia. More importantly, the Special Olympics have helped him forge friendships and collaborate with others.
"Don't put each other down, be inclusive with everyone, and be a team player," said Tomlinson, who is autistic, on life lessons he's learned through speedskating. "It works out well at a job to know that you're a part of a team and you have people to support you and you have people to support."
The Ontario Speed Skating Association has been nominated by multiple people as a Champion of Inclusion and is being recognized as part of the Special Olympics' Global Week of Inclusion for its programming.
It's the OSSA's inclusive programming — athletes can choose to compete in generic or Special Olympic categories, among other initiatives — that Jennifer Tomlinson saw draw her son into the sport and helped build his confidence.
"From the moment he hit the ice, he loved it," she said. "It was very inclusive. He was never bullied when he was skating and he was fairly good at it from the beginning, so he fit right in."
Jennifer Tomlinson also notes that at many OSSA meets the heats are grouped by the skaters' average pace, meaning Jackson was paired with people his own speed rather than people his own age. She also appreciates that if a race is specifically for Special Olympics athletes it's treated like any other event on the day's schedule and not hidden away.
Julie Byers, the sports manager for the OSSA, is pleased that Jackson Tomlinson and other athletes with intellectual or developmental disabilities have found a home in the speed-skating community and is "thrilled" that her organization is being recognized by the Special Olympics.
"We have a history of being an inclusive sport for all ages and abilities so Special Olympic programing, whether it's training or competition or camps, that's an important part of our identity," said Byers.
The Global Week of Inclusion began Monday and people are encouraged to use the hashtag #ChooseToInclude to celebrate the Special Olympics all week.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 20, 2020.
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John Chidley-Hill, The Canadian Press