During a recent visit to Ottawa I had the great pleasure of visiting Sawmill Creek Elementary School to talk to the kids there about Right To Play. I was very fortunate to make a trip to Rwanda last year with three other athlete ambassadors for Right to Play and it served to strengthen my belief in the power of sport and support of this wonderful organization.
In the moments leading up to my first of two presentations at Sawmill Creek I had the opportunity to meet a young boy named Peter. This little guy is the one child in the school with autism and as such has a special routine to follow and a special desk in the front office next to the principal’s office.
Each morning before school starts he sits down with the principal and goes over the previous day where they review how the day went and have a little chat. I was warmly invited to take part in this tête-à-tête with Peter and the principal and throughout I couldn’t help but smile at Peter as he recounted the ups and down of his yesterday to me. For some tasks he would get a smiley face, for others a not-so-smiley face. He told little stories and rambled on about this and that. I found him to be rather charming.
The first presentation I gave was to kids in grades one to five. I talked a little bit about speed skating and my trip to Rwanda last May. At the end I left time for questions and, as per usual with such a young group, I was peppered with questions like: “My Mom takes me to the canal sometimes”, “Do you have a dog?” and “Did you ever win a race?”
These questions and non-questions sometimes make me laugh out loud but I do my best to answer them and try to keep the focus on skating or Right To Play. The best question I was ever asked was at a school in Calgary, where a boy, who was clearly terrified to ask me his question, stammered out, “Why do your arms look so long?” It’s amazing the things that kids are curious about. The answer to that one of course is simply that my arms look so long because, well, they are.
As I was fielding questions from the kids I eventually noticed Peter. He had been sitting at the end of the row but had slowly squirmed his way around his classmates closer and closer to the middle of the gym, all the while his hand reaching for the sky. When I pointed him out for the next question he rose up on his knees and asked in a loud, clear voice, “Did speed skating become your dream?” His question took me aback not just because he was so young but also because of how thoughtful and insightful it was. It instantly made my spirit soar. Like a breath of fresh air he breezed to the very heart of why I go out to schools and do talks like this as much as I can.
Of course speed skating and the Olympic Games became my dream and I was thrilled to tell the kids about the why’s and how’s and what’s of having a dream like that. It’s rare for a child that young to ask such a bright question, but it does happen and it made me smile.
After the second presentation to the older kids I ended up in the VP’s office (not for bad behaviour!!) while we waited for recess to be over so I could do a quick visit to each classroom to show the kids my medals.
As we were chatting, Peter came in from recess to his little desk next to the principal’s office and as he passed the door he looked in and saw us sitting there. I caught his eye and when he saw me sitting there his eyes lit up, he smiled brightly and said, “Hello my champion.” Well, I just about melted into my chair that very moment. As he kicked off his rubber boots and tossed his toque onto the desk I replied, with about as big a smile on my face as is physically possible, “And hello to MY little champion.” He beamed.
He came into the office and proceeded to tell us all about the game he played at recess and showed us his ball, that also somehow turned into a Frisbee. He chattered on as all little kids do and I found it rather entertaining. I could have sat there all day. I thanked him for asking such a good question during the presentation and told him how impressed I was with it. With a little prodding and slightly exasperated encouragement the VP eventually got him settled and on his merry way.
I was quite fortunate to meet this little guy and somehow I feel enriched for having done so. I can only imagine the countless challenges he faces in his daily life but am beyond encouraged by how bright, interesting and unique he is. The Peters of the world serve as little reminders to me that every once in a while the messages I share do sink in and that maybe somehow I’ve succeeded in making a difference, however small.