I looked at my mom and saw her crying, and I knew I’d break down too."
It was a moment Ashley Wilwand, 15, will have engraved in her memory for the rest of her life. The Grade 11 student at Garden City Collegiate had just accepted her gold medal for winning the Division 3A rhythmic gymnastics rope competition at the 2010 National Special Olympics Games last week in London, Ont. Her winning score was 8.05.
"I was so proud," her mother Lisa Wilwand said. "I have never seen kids pull together this way. Whether they won, they lost, they were cheering each other on."
Her daughter made four more trips to the podium. She won silver medals in ball (7.487) and individual all-round (30.837) and bronze in club (7.99) and ribbon (7.312). Including Wilwand's collection, Manitoba brought home 79 medals -- 30 gold, 26 silver and 23 bronze.
"We are a sport organization, there is no doubt about it," said Jennifer Campbell, vice-president of sport for Special Olympics Manitoba and chef de mission for Team Manitoba. "But the emphasis isn't on the medals necessarily. Obviously, as a sport and as athletes, people want to win a medal; that's just kind of a goal.
"We've come a long way in terms of moving our training program to how athletes who don't have an intellectual disability train.
"Probably 20 years ago, we started a provincial team program called a medallion program. Now we call it our program of excellence. It acknowledged that every other athlete in this province, when they make a provincial team, they increase their training and make a stronger commitment to the sport.
"The people who were in our organization at that time said, 'Why wouldn't we do that for athletes with an intellectual disability too?' " Campbell said. "So that program, the first of its kind across the country, started right here in Manitoba. It took the approach that these athletes deserve that quality training, that qualified coach, the competitive opportunities that other athletes in this province receive."
For Wilwand, who also plays flute in her school band, this was her first national games experience.
"It was huge. I wasn't expecting anything that happened, but just knowing what it felt like to be a part of such a big and important thing," she said. "I was used to competing against only one other person, but this time there were 10 other people.
"When I got off the mat after getting my medals, I had to grab my coach's arm because I almost fell right down. A big weight came right off of me.
"Rope and ribbon are my best routines," says Wilwand, who trains five days a week -- two with weights and three at practice. "I feel that I have a lot of good technique with them and they're a lot easier than some of the other routines I've done."
With all the strides that SOM has taken since its beginning, Campbell says there are still misconceptions.
"People often ask: 'When are the games? When are the Olympics?' Our programs are 365 days a year. Our athletes are training every week. The London Games was one small piece of what we do.
"We have 2,000 athletes in this province participating on a daily basis in their programs. Every athlete, no matter their ability, we provide a program for, and we provide a competitive opportunity for them."
The London Games were a qualifier for the Special Olympics International World Summer Games in Athens in 2011. Campbell, who will be the chef de mission for Team Canada, says the team should be announced within the next few weeks.
"I'm kind of optimistic and excited to think that we may have a few athletes on that team, so I have my fingers crossed."