Natalie Brnjas didn’t grow up as an athlete.
Now, she’s coaching world champions.
The East St. Paul resident has been coaching with Special Olympics since 2008, when a friend looking to become a teacher wanted Brnjas to volunteer with her. The friend only lasted a couple of months, but Brnjas took to it immediately.
"I told them ‘You can’t get rid of me, I’m a lifer,’" she recalled. "What don’t I like about it? The athletes are great. The organization is amazing. They provide everything the athletes need when it comes to their physical health, working on their physical fitness.
"I hated sports. I didn’t play any sports ever in my life. I never coached. Nothing."
For her efforts, Brnjas will be awarded one of five Mayor’s Volunteer Service Awards at the 31st Annual Volunteer Awards at the RBC Convention Centre Winnipeg on April 9.
Brnjas coaches snowshoeing, basketball, and track teams within Winnipeg, as well as the University of Manitoba-based provincial team heading to the national games in Vancouver this summer, often finding herself coaching three nights a week. The basketball and track programs are run out of École Leila North Community School, while the snowshoeing is often run out of Kildonan Park.
"A lot of people have the perception that Special Olympics athletes aren’t capable of what generic athletes are, but it’s so not true," she said. "They work so hard. They do so well. They break personal best records."
Brnjas started out coaching snowshoers, and she admits she was initially reluctant to take on the challenge.
"I hate winter. I don’t go outside," she said. "That year, they were trying to convince me to coach snowshoeing. I said ‘I’m going to try, I’ll see.’
"Now, I can’t wake up at eight on a Saturday morning. I love it."
Brnjas takes inspiration from the athletes, who struggle to overcome "setbacks and their disabilities," to work hard and enjoy themselves simultaneously. She finds she’s able to connect with athletes, something that was especially apparent to her when the national-level athletes she coached went to Pyeongchang, South Korea, for the worlds in 2012. She trained them in Canada, but didn’t travel with the team. Staying at home didn’t bother her initially, but eventually realized that she was missing out.
"Each (athlete) got their own cell phone that they got to keep," she recalled. "Every time one of my athletes finished racing and got a medal, they would call me personally on my cell phone to tell me ‘Coach, I got a gold medal, thank you for helping me,’ or ‘Coach, I just got a silver,’ or ‘Coach, I miss you,’
"Every phone call made me cry."
Brnjas also works as an educational assistant at Elmwood High School, and is taking classes at the University of Manitoba looking to earn her certificate for teaching English as a second language, and hopes to enter the faculty of education in the fall.