When Paul Potma was one-year-old, a specialist told his parents that he would not have complete use of his legs. He weighed two-pounds at birth, and spent the first 32 days of his life hooked up to an oxygen tank.
In July, at 21-years-old, he swam his way to five Special Olympics medals – four gold and one silver – at the BC Summer Games in Prince George.
And he’s not the only member of the Mission club to find success in the provincial competition; his teammate, Matthew Burns, also 21, came out with five medals of his own.
“It’s actually quite amazing,” said Sue Potma, his mother. “We’re pretty proud that he can do all these kinds of sports, and not to mention the medaling, and being so determined.”
The local Special Olympics club offers more than just a competitive outlet for intellectually disabled athletes, it offers a social outlet to meet new friends, build confidence and camaraderie, and stay active.
The local club has existed for decades, and has teams for floor hockey, bowling, basketball, rhythmic gymnastics, swimming, and a track and field program. Each sport has its own coach and assistant coaches, who volunteer their time.
Paul swam for the Mission Marlins for about six years before his dad, Kevin Potma, decided to start the Mission Special Olympics swim team.
Kevin and Paul’s younger sister – who also swims competitively – now coach approximately 10 swimmers on the team. They practice weekly from October to March.
Not every developmentally challenged kid has the chance to get into sports growing up.
Jennifer Burn, Matthew’s mother, said that her son was never able to compete on sports teams before finding Special Olympics as a teenager.
Now he swims, plays soccer, floor hockey, basketball and dodge ball, Jennifer said.
“There really is no other organization like the Special Olympics,” she said. “The social outlet and activities are really non-existent anywhere else. For many of the athletes, it’s probably one of their only social outings for the week.
“He’s always loved the water … Just the fact that he’s doing what he loves and also what he’s good at. It’s great for self-esteem too.”
Many of the teammates’ friendships go beyond the swim lanes, and the local club has offered opportunities that otherwise have been hard to come by, said Paul Burns, Matthew’s father.
But the competition is just as important a challenge to the athletes.
Special Olympics divide athletes by their ability and age in order to make the sports more competitive and fair.
Sue said that at the higher levels, they can go as fast as Paralympic swimmers.
Both Paul and Matthew have a chance to go to Canada Games three years from now, and even the Special Olympics World Games in Germany in 2023.
The BC Summer Games and the Canada Games both have portions of their competition dedicated to the Special Olympics, while the World Games are exclusive to the disabled athletes.
Eighty-nine athletes will be selected for the World Games in October, 2022.
The selection of the B.C. athletes could be based on their times in a Special Olympics tournament this past May in Kelowna, where Paul placed first in all four events he raced in.
Sue said her son has been wanting to get into higher levels of competition, and will be training at the Masters Swim Club in Maple Ridge this fall to get more time in the pool.
When asked what he likes about competitive swimming, Paul said it’s all about meeting new people and improving his times.
“I’ve never been really stressed about the competition part,” he said.