When it comes to Special Olympics, no name is more synonymous in this area than that of Merle Gadsby.
In December, the longtime and former physical education and Special Education teacher in Steinbach was honoured by Special Olympics Manitoba (SOM) for her 35 years of volunteer work with Special Olympic athletes, who she considers them to be her friends.
This week it was announced that Gadsby, who retired as a Special Ed teacher in 2010 from the Steinbach Regional Secondary School, is one of 150 Manitoba residents to be recognized in celebration of Manitoba’s 150th birthday, which came in 2020.
This list of 150 outstanding Manitobans, who were selected from a wide range of nominees, includes recipients from across the province, and from a variety of backgrounds.
Each honouree received a commemorative medal, produced by Awards Canada, who have incorporated copper salvaged from the Legislative Building. The medal features a design created by Manitoba artist Takashi Iwasaki, who drew inspiration for the medal from Manitoba’s prairie sky, rivers, villages and farming roots.
In her profile in the Honour 150 awards, describing the volunteering of Merle Gadsby, it starts with, she is "the face of Special Olympics in Steinbach."
That’s a good starting point in describing her legacy with Special Olympics, which continues on today.
Gadsby, who lives in Mitchell, has done it all for Special Olympics over the years, coaching athletes with intellectual disabilities in snowshoe, track and field, golf, swimming, bowling, etc., along with raising funds, training other coaches and building long-lasting friendships with many of her athletes.
In the last year she has become the Special Olympics Manitoba Eastman Regional leader, which includes working with 166 athletes and 24 coaches from across the region.
Gadsby was nominated for the Honour 150 award by Lesley Camaso-Catalan from the SMO head office. "Without her passion and dedication, there would be no Special Olympics programs in the Steinbach area."
"When you see someone that you have helped and trained, and you see them doing well in competition, it is so gratifying," said Gadsby.
Agnes Thiessen, a former coach and longtime Special Olympics volunteer who has worked alongside Gadsby said, "Merle is very passionate, non-judgemental, kind and dedicated, and cares for the athletes. And she is very loyal to the cause of Special Olympics."
No doubt, to know Merle Gadsby, as so many in this area do, including thousands of her former students, Special Olympians, golfing partners, friends and neighbours, the recognition she has received of late is well-deserved, but that is not what drives her.
"I have fun with the athletes, they are good friends."
The fact we are even able to write this story today about Merle Gadsby, telling us in her own words what Special Olympics means to her, is a miracle in itself. That is because she nearly died two months ago after falling on ice, and in fact the family was told she would not survive.
Never one to sit still, regardless of the season (she golfed 118 games last year), she is always keeping busy.
Part of that keeping busy is going on her twice daily walk in the Mitchell area, regardless of the weather. "She’s obsessed with her Fitbit," said her husband Brian, in an interview with the two of them at their home this week. "She has to get her 20,000 steps in every day."
It was on one of those mid-day walks, on Dec. 15, it had just rained and it was very slippery, that she slipped and fell and hit her head."
"I knew it was bad at the time," said Merle, "but I got up and was able to walk home."
She had a bump on her head and had a headache. They phoned their daughter Amy, who is a doctor in Cincinnati, and she advised her dad to keep an eye her, watching out for certain signs.
By the next morning, she was feeling sick, had fallen in the kitchen, and Brian then called the ambulance. With assistance, she was able to walk to the ambulance, and she was taken to Bethesda Regional Health Centre in Steinbach.
And then her condition rapidly deteriorated. By 2:00 that afternoon, the emergency doctor at Bethesda told Brian "that it was not looking good and there is not much we can do." The brain surgeon at the Health Sciences Centre said she had no brain activity and as a result would not survive surgery.
"We were told to call the family," said Brian, which includes son Tim, who lives in Steinbach and daughter Amber in Winnipeg, who were at Bethesda, along with daughter Amy, who was desperately trying to get to Canada, which was not easy with the current border restrictions.
"We were also asked to consider organ donation," said Brian as they were trying to digest the devastating news.
Still in Bethesda, they kept a vigil through the night with her. "Amber noticed she was moving her hands, and she tried to kick off the blankets, she has always done that. We squeezed her hand and she squeezed it back."
At 7:30 the next morning, miraculously, she woke up. That set the wheels in motion for brain surgery later that day at the Health Sciences Centre, which was a success. She spent three days at HSC, then was transferred back to Bethesda.
"On Christmas morning," as Brian describes it, "Merle got up in her hospital room and declared she was ready to go home." The medical staff relented, and with daughter Amy at home, having finally gotten into Canada the day of Merle’s surgery, she was allowed to go home.
"That was our Christmas miracle," said Brian.
Merle continues to recover at home and is making remarkable progress. "She is now doing 15,000 steps a day walking around the house," chuckled Brian, "at first with a walker and now on her own. She wants to walk outside but I don’t think we’re there yet." She’s also spending her days doing puzzles. "I hadn’t done a puzzle in the last 50 years, now I’m doing a new one every two or three days."
"If I could I would go golfing today," said Merle on Tuesday, as Brian was somewhat relieved that they don’t have to try and cross that bridge just yet, during the recent polar vortex that was just wrapping up.
Now, on this rapid road to recovery, Merle is almost back to normal, and is fielding phone calls from her special, Special Olympian friends, which is the norm. They had been told that Merle had suffered had a bad fall, and they were concerned, like any friend would be.
And she’s back at it, Zoom meetings and all, waiting for the pandemic to be over, so that she can gather again with her friends from Special Olympics, as well as spend time with her seven grandchildren (ages 2-14), and get back onto to that golf course.