Sprinter donates time and talent to train Special Olympians

World-class Canadian sprinter Okiki Akinremi competed on the international stage for 17 years.

He has been ranked one of the world’s top 20 sprinters, and has trained with some of the best coaches in the world.

Now as a trainer himself, Akinremi is passing on his knowledge by donating a series of training sessions to four athletes competing in the 2011 Special Olympics World Summer Games this June in Athens.

The Special Olympics provides and opportunity for those with an intellectual disability to enrich their lives through sport. Founded in 1968 by Eunice Kennedy Shriver, what first started out as a summer camp has now grown internationally to include nearly 3.5 million athletes.

“I think she did an amazing thing and I think that her legacy will definitely carry on,” Akinremi said. “I’m happy to be a part of it and I’m happy to be able to give back to the athletes any way I can.”

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Through Motionball, a Canadian organization that raises funds for the Special Olympics, Akinremi volunteers his time to help train athletes at his own fitness studio, Explosion Fitness Resolutions in Scarborough.

“I think the Special Olympics is a great thing for athletes that have special needs,” Akinremi said. “It’s a great way for them to compete on the world stage and get the exposure.”

Akinremi helps the athletes — three of them sprinters, one a rhythmic gymnast — improve their technique. In addition to training with their regular coaches back at home, they meet with Akinremi once a month and do exercises to improve their speed and prepare themselves for the Special Olympics.

Gymnast Christina Judd-Campbell says she’s been training hard, trying to improve her flexibility, and she hopes to bring home five gold medals.

“I think Okiki is a really great inspiration to all special-needs athletes and he’s a great inspiration for other athletes as well,” said Catherine Partlow, a gold-winning track star.

One per cent of all Canadians is born with an intellectual disability. Special Olympics Canada has so far supported 10 per cent of that number. But, as Motionball co-founder Paul Etherington says, there’s still a lot that needs to be done.

“It’s a massive issue,” he said. “We can enrich their lives and help them to become more active members of society.”

The Special Olympics helps athletes not only physically, but socially and emotionally as well. It offers them a chance to be a part of the community and to gain a new sense of belonging.

“So many people know about Paralympics but nobody knows about Special Olympics,” Etherington said. “So to have an Olympic athlete [Akinremi] tell his story and help train some of the Olympic athletes — it’s incredible.”

Motionball, founded in 2002 by the Etherington brothers, is entirely volunteer-based and has raised more than $2 million for the Special Olympics so far. Through their fundraising events across Canada, they plan to donate $1 million annually by 2014.

Without these organizations, athletes wouldn’t be able to do their best and show other people what they can do, said Kathy Campbell, Christina’s mother.

“A lot of times, the instant assumption is what people with intellectual disability cannot do, whereas the Special Olympics gives athletes an opportunity to demonstrate what they can do well,” she said. “We appreciate Okiki taking the time. He’s done a great job and he’s shared his skills and expertise with the girls, and as a result has really given them an extra push and kick start to their training.

“And for that, we’re grateful.”