by Bernie de Jonge
They’re called “People of Determination” – the athletes who compete in the World’s Special Olympics. This year’s event was held in March in Abu Dhabi and Dubai. An estimated 7500 athletes from 190 countries gathered to compete in various traditional sports. Joe Covaci, of the Kitchener, Ontario Friendship Club, was one of those athletes.
Joe is a long-distance runner. He trained for four years for this Olympic world event, and his strength and endurance are what enabled him to compete in the regional, provincial and national finals. At nationals, he was one of 109 athletes across 9 sport disciplines chosen to represent Canada. Athletes representing Canada are chosen for their athletic ability, interpersonal skills, and cooperative spirit, so Joe was the perfect candidate. Since Joe has both visual and cognitive impairments, he runs with a tethered athletic guide. Joe’s parents were extremely grateful that Special Olympics Canada & Ontario made special provisions for him to attend these Olympics with a 1:1 personal support person during the entire 16-day trip to UAE.
Joe competed in the 5000 metres and placed fourth. The next day, he ran the 3000 meters and placed third, earning a bronze medal. He served as a great inspiration for other runners, who celebrated his successes with him. Joe wore Canada’s colours and his medals with delight and excitement. It was a proud moment for him and his family. The trip to Abu Dhabi was topped off with a camel ride in the desert.
HH Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, vice president of the UAE and ruler of Dubai, commented, “disability is in fact the inability to make progress and achievements.The achievements that people of determination have made in various spheres over the past years are proof that determination and strong will can do the impossible and encourage people to counter challenges and difficult circumstances while firmly achieving their goals.”
Joe is a member at Community Christian Reformed Church of Kitchener, where we affectionately call him “Big Joe.” Our Friendship Club is extremely proud of what Joe has accomplished. He kept us all updated throughout the entire running process, from regionals to provincials, all the way to national competition in New Brunswick. We celebrated when he succeeded, and prayed when he hurt his ankle, always encouraging him with words and prayer. During the closing ceremonies, his mother recorded a video of him and his team mates dancing with joy. Our church was able to watch this video and join him in celebration of his accomplishments on Sunday. When Joe came to his first Friendship Club meeting back from the Olympics, I had everyone stand in a circle and brought Joe into the center. I asked him to speak about his experience and he was saluted for his hard work and determination. It was a tremendous moment for everyone.
Joe’s journey to the Olympics is a great demonstration of Friendship Ministries’ mission. Our hope is that Friendship Groups serve as a model for inclusivity that begins within the church and imbues to all the other spheres of life. Joe blessed the people in his life with his unique gift, and in turn, his community responded with grace and love.
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