There is Something Special About This Ice

The Goulbourn Figure Skating Club presents: Special Olympians and their coaches: coach Cathy Skinner (first from left), coach Natalie Cholette (first from right), coach Sarah Wammes (fourth from right) and coach Kelsey Drysdale (sixth from right) Photo by: Alex Gunther

Eleven-year-old Duncan does not speak. But the boy’s father Scott Miller doesn’t need words to understand that his son enjoys ice skating.  Duncan’s eyes beam when his father asks him in sign language whether he likes to skate. He does.

“When I tell him it’s time for skating – he is boom – he is at the door. He pulls the bag out, he puts the boots on – he is ready to go,” Miller says.

In white and black skates, Duncan’s tiny feet are learning to keep the balance on two thin blades.  This is his third season, since the boy has started practicing with the Goulbourn Skating Club as a part of their Special Olympic (SO) program.

This program is one of many through which Special Olympics Canada services Canadian athletes with intellectual disabilities across the country.

3 Duncan and Scott
Scott Miller is helping his son Duncan, 11, to untie laces after training with Special Olympians at the Goulbourn Recreation Complex. Photo by: Damira Davletyarova

Miller says the SO program is what Duncan needs. It’s a place where Duncan receives dedicated attention, extra ice time and an environment with no expectations. In a regular class, Miller says, it would be hard for Duncan to progress.

“With this (SO program), he can learn at his pace, with his skates. His pace is gradual – it’s pretty slow, but he is coming along,” Miller says.

Miller credits the coach Cathy Skinner for teaching Duncan like many other kids with special needs to enjoy skating. Miller says Skinner is an experienced figure skating coach. He says that seeing how other children have been improving under her coaching inspires him to keep bringing Duncan for training.

“Cathy is amazing. I see the improvements with older kids – It’s great to watch. I think it’s watching the other kids and I think: Well, Duncan can skate like that someday. We hope – you’ve got to cross your fingers,” Miller says.

It kept her warm…

Cathy Skinner has spent 35 years coaching skaters both on and off the ice. It has been more than six years since Skinner started coaching Special Olympic athletes at the Goulbourn Skating Club. Skinner says her passion for ice and coaching has kept her warm.

“I think, to spend 35 years standing in a cold arena day in and day out, you have to be passionate about it,” Skinner says.

At the practice, Skinner was skating with almost two dozen athletes on the ice rink, correcting and giving advice. Forwards, backwards, spinning, one-foot glides – nothing is different for these Special Olympic skaters.

Learning to skate is difficult, the coach says. You need patience, learn to follow instructions, learn how to win and lose; and the most important – learn how to be a part of the team.

When it comes to training Special Olympic athletes, Skinner says, she often uses different coaching techniques. With Special Olympians, there is no one style suits all.

“You can have a group of children with either Autism or Down Syndrome and they are all totally different. Some do not like to be touched, some want to try everything; some are very shy and more cautious,” Skinner says.

4 Paolo and Irene
Paolo Paiement, 23, and his mother Irene Streimikis at the Goulbourn Recreation Complex. Streimikis says “it’s important for parents who have children with some type of disability, to put them into an arena where they are protected from the masses”. Photo by: Damira Davletyarova

Whether it’s through positive feedback, the use of toys, or playing games – an award-winning coach teaches these athletes to love skating.

“If you can instill this love for skating into them, they will want to continue to do it. You never want it to be a chore. You want it to be fun, and as a bonus – they are also exercising,” Skinner says.

As for Skinner herself, the coaching of SO children has always been a pleasure. She says she loves working with all the Special Olympic athletes.

“The athletes are truly genuine. They love to skate and are very appreciative. To see the improvements from these athletes is very inspiring to me and always makes me want to push myself to greater heights,” Skinner says.

In January 2013, Skinner was part of Team Canada which travelled to the Special Olympics World Winter Games in South Korea. Her athletes brought home three gold and three silver medals. In the same year, Skinner was selected to receive the Petro Canada Coaching Excellence Award presented by the Coaching Association of Canada.

He was born that way…

“He was born that way,” says Irene Streimikis, the mother of Paolo Paiement. “He loves skating.”

Paolo, 23, has been skating for 12 years. It is his third season of training with Skinner at the Goulbourn club’s SO program.

“I like skating because I have been skating a lot. I have new friends – I really love skating pretty much,” Paolo says.

But even more, he says, he loves his coach Cathy.

“She is like an angel of mine. All the women are like angels to me, I just love girls. She is helping me with tricks – she helps me every time,” Paolo says.

Paolo is considered an advanced Special Olympian skater, capable of doing more advanced elements. In his arsenal: flip and loop jumps, spirals, Y scale (ankle hold) and sit spins.

Streimikis says the Special Olympic skating sessions give Paolo a safe place, where he can skate freely without intimidation. It’s also a place, where parents don’t have to worry about their kids being elbowed or knocked over.

“As a parent, when you have a child with some type of disability, it’s important to put them into an arena where they are protected from the masses,” Streimikis says.

Need in the community

5 Cathy Skinner
Cathy Skinner skates with her trainee Massimo Caporale. Skinner says: “If you can instill this love for skating into them, they will want to continue to do it. You never want it to be a chore”. Photo by: Alex Gunther

Established in 2004, the Goulbourn Skating Club serves the Ottawa West community. The club offers a variety of skating programs including CANSkate, CANPOWERSkate, ADULTSkate and STARSkate. It’s one of the two skating clubs in Ottawa that offers a Special Olympic program.

Kevin Timmins, the president of the Goulbourn Skating Club, says the club offers the Special Olympic program because there is a need in the community. Today, 20 children with special needs attend the club’s program.

“I sought a Special Olympic designation for the Goulbourn Skating Club simply because we wanted to meet the needs of the communities we service in every aspect,” Timmins says.

“I knew that we had everything required to offer a program that was not only financially competitive but also had the resources to deliver a strong program.”

In fact, there will be a greater need for more autism programs and services in future. According to Autism Speaks Canada, Autism now affects one in 68 children. It is 30 per cent higher than the estimate for 2008, and 120 per cent higher than for 2002.


As the night is wrapping up, the skaters desert the ice rink. Duncan is among many others sitting on the bench. His father is helping him to untie his skate laces.

Before they leave though, Miller shares his hope: one day, to see his son Duncan skating good enough to try hockey.