Simon Fraser Sparks Lifelong Bond With Special Olympics
This is the second time that Simon Fraser has been selected as a finalist for the NCAA Division II Award of Excellence.
This is the second time that Simon Fraser has been selected as a finalist for the NCAA Division II Award of Excellence.
Simon Fraser will receive a $500 award to use toward other SAAC initiatives or community engagement activities.
Simon Fraser will receive a $500 award to use toward other SAAC initiatives or community engagement activities.

Monday, January 18, 2021
by Kaho Akau, GNAC Media Relations Assistant

BURNABY, B.C. – In a year as unusual as 2020 was, communities needed unity and reassurance more than anything. Simon Fraser University accepted that challenge.

For its community engagement and student-athlete leadership, Simon Fraser was among 29 national finalists for the 2021 NCAA Division II Award of Excellence.

Simon Fraser was selected as the GNAC’s conference finalist for the award, which recognizes Division II institutions and conferences for their efforts in promoting student-athletes giving back and serving as leaders in the community.

“Being named a finalist for the award was fantastic news to receive,” said Ryan Stolys, a junior on the Simon Fraser men’s golf team and the president of the SFU Student-Athlete Advisory Committee (SAAC). “It reinforces the priorities that our SAAC and athletic department have set to be positive influences in the community. It encourages us to continue these initiatives.”

In summer 2018, the Simon Fraser SAAC established a partnership with Special Olympics Coquitlam and arranged to have student-athletes coach weekly fitness classes for Special Olympics athletes. The relationship with Special Olympics grew stronger over the next two years as members of SAAC brainstormed ideas to expand the partnership in 2020.

“This idea came from Laura Jones, a former women’s golfer and our former vice president of community involvement and fundraising,” Stolys said. “Laura was involved with Special Olympics in high school and felt that beginning a partnership would be a good fit. We quickly realized that this initiative was one that our student-athletes and the Special Olympians really enjoyed.”

The weekly fitness classes, titled “Building Inclusive Communities,” saw more than 70 Simon Fraser student-athletes volunteer throughout the year as coaches for individuals with intellectual disabilities. The workouts included five to 10 student-athletes leading the Special Olympians through a warmup, standing cardiovascular exercise, mat exercises and a cooldown.

The initiative used the power of sports to showcase the talents of the Special Olympians and create an inclusive environment. The student-athletes were able to give each Special Olympian personalized training and corrections while encouraging them to pursue their full potential.

“Being fit is one of the things student-athletes do best, so it seemed like a good place to start a program,” said Kelly Weber, SFU associate director of student-athlete services. “What started as a handful of student-athletes quickly grew. They impact the lives of the Special Olympians on a weekly basis and in return, they forged lifelong relationships and developed a sense of appreciation for how strong the human spirit is.”

The “Building Inclusive Communities” initiative culminated at Special Olympics Night at a Simon Fraser women’s basketball game in February. More than 20 Special Olympians brought their families, support staff and caregivers to the game. The guests were treated as VIPs and sat at center court with the student-athletes.

The showcase game honored every Special Olympian in attendance with courtside interviews for them to share their unique personalities and interests. During the game, the student-athletes and Special Olympians sold cookies and hot chocolate to fans and raised nearly $1,000 (CDN) for Special Olympics.

Throughout Simon Fraser’s partnership with Special Olympics, the student-athletes have been able to share their knowledge and enrich the lives of those with intellectual disabilities. But the SFU community has learned so much more from the Special Olympians.

Working with Special Olympians has taught the student-athletes that sports are more than just sports. They can be used as a platform to create a sense of community, friendship and belonging.

“Our student-athletes have taken away a better appreciation for the challenges that the Special Olympics athletes face,” Stolys said. “Despite these challenges, they still show up every week with a positive attitude. Our involvement with Special Olympics has helped to remind us of the happiness that sports can bring to all of us.”

With the COVID-19 pandemic still in full effect, Simon Fraser’s partnership with Special Olympics continued virtually in 2020-21. The weekly fitness classes are now conducted through Zoom.

The relationship between the student-athletes and Special Olympians has so far been such a success that the Simon Fraser SAAC has made Special Olympics a core partner of its community engagement plans moving forward. In the fall of 2020, all volunteer positions for the semester were filled within days and a waitlist had to be established.

“This initiative was developed, delivered and nurtured 100 percent by our student-athletes,” Weber said. “This recognition pays tribute to the work they have done and the special bond that continues to grow with our Special Olympians.”

The Simon Fraser SAAC has three primary focuses: The student-athlete experience, institutional relationships and community involvement.

Over the last three years, Stolys has seen community engagement among student-athletes grow exponentially. More ideas for community engagement are suggested every year and student-athletes, whether or not they’re involved in SAAC, are stepping up to bring those ideas to fruition.

There’s a sense of pride that comes with playing sports at the college level, especially at Simon Fraser, Canada’s only NCAA program. But it doesn’t compare to the level of happiness that comes with using that platform to make a difference.

“If you are interested in seeing something happen then you need to be the one to step up and make it happen,” Stolys said. “As student-athletes, we are lucky to have an opportunity to use our platform and voices to give back to our local communities. Our student-athletes show up for community initiatives with the same positive attitude that they have with athletics and academics. In doing so, they represent Simon Fraser well.”