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The life lessons go both ways for Special Olympics coach

In this Helpers feature we join Special Olympics Ontario coach and community coordinator Lori Burjoski-Savage on the sports field

Special Olympics Ontario coach for Guelph-Wellington Lori Burjoski-Savage has dedicated seven years of her life teaching and coaching athletes, but she learned an early lesson from them about team spirit and sportsmanship.

“My first track meet was in Brantford and I have two guys running in the heat of six,” said Savage. “My one runner was going too fast and down he went. I immediately go over and all the runners stopped. I’m a very competitive person and I am looking at my other runner who is standing there and I’m nodding my head for him to go. 'Go, you’re going to get in first. Run! He’s okay.’ But they didn’t. They all waited and crossed the line together. They taught me that day that it is not about the winning and they all got first-place ribbons for doing that.”

It’s a lesson Savage carried with her on and off the field as she coached Special Olympic athletes to provincial, national and world tournaments.

“You would never see that in any other sport, absolutely not, and it has taken a little of the competitiveness out of me,” she said laughing. “They cheer each other on and are so supportive of each other and other athletes on other teams. It doesn’t matter what team you’re on or where you’re from.”

Savage has built a close relationship with her athletes and has traveled with them to many competitions so, they were all a little disappointed when she wasn’t selected to join Team Canada during the 2019 Special Olympic World Games in Abu Dhabi in March.

“Only 40 coaches were picked to represent Team Canada and I, unfortunately, wasn’t one of them,” she said. “But I had a private supporter who shares my interest in Special Olympics and he knew the importance of me going there because I have coached them for the last four years to go for this run.”

Her private supporter put up the money to pay for her trip.

“I only call him Mr. P because he wants to be kind of anonymous,” said Savage. “He graciously said you’ve got to go and he was so right. it was nice to go and be there for them to support them and give them individual coaching and support because I wasn’t there as an official coach.”

Medal winner Eva Bell was especially happy Savage was there.

“She was very surprised because they didn’t know I was coming,” said Savage. “Eva ran her little heart out. Her dream was to go to the Olympics and I’ve got her 200-metre run videotaped.”

Canada sent 109 athletes to the World Games and 55 were from Ontario.

“Five of those were from Guelph-Wellington so, that’s an amazing feat for us,” said Savage.

“We’ve never had an athlete go in an individual sport.”

All five came home with medals. Jennifer Allen got the gold in 10-Pin Bowling. Eva Bell got the silver in the 200-Metre and the bronze in shot put. MacKenzie de Jonge, Nathan Riley and Sheldon Riley brought home the bronze in basketball.

“It was very successful and I attribute that to our coaches,” said Savage. “They are very committed and so are the parents and caregivers who get them there every week. It takes more than one person to do what you do because you need support from your family, right”

Savage grew up in Ponsonby, the second oldest of four daughters born to Bob and Helen Burjoski.

“My parents were very good at volunteering and helping out,” she said. “When I was growing up Dad was an umpire and Mom would get the team ready and wash uniforms, things like that.

I think it is kind of bred in you too to give back.”

She is married to Al Savage and they have two daughters Krista and Haley and two grandchildren. She has coached for the Special Olympics for seven years and last year became the community coordinator for Guelph Wellington. The experience has been rewarding in many ways.

“I was grateful to go to PEI for the Nationals for Team Ontario,” she said. “That was a blast. I had never been to PEI. I took on Alpine Skiing in February and went up to Sault Ste Marie. I don’t ski but I am pretty good at cheering at the bottom of the hill. There are some things 58-year-old women shouldn’t do.”

The experience in Abu Dhabi was life changing for the athletes.

“They have made friends worldwide,” said Savage. “170 nations took part and it was so nice to see them all cheering for each other. Even if you didn’t speak the language a high-five went along way down there.”

For many of the athletes it was the first time they traveled so far and for so long without their parents and they learned a lot about the world and themselves.

“In Abu Dhabi they got to ride a camel,” said Savage. “They got to sand surf. They got to go out on dune buggies. They showed them their country and that is a beautiful country, I must say.

I know a lot of them have come back more secure in themselves. They grew up a lot over there.”

The life lessons weren’t limited to the athletes.

“They want to be treated like everyone else,” said Savage. “That’s our goal to get them out.

For me it was a wonderful feat and I am very fortunate that my family supports my dream.

I get back way more than I put in. That’s how I feel.”