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After 50 years of changing lives, Operation Trackshoes embarks on last lap at UVic

Sporting weekend for people with developmental disabilites started in 1971

The first weekend in June is a highlight of the summer – maybe even the year – for Heather Light.

For 15 years, she’s competed at Operation Trackshoes, a sporting event for those with developmental disabilities held at the University of Victoria.

As part of the West Coast Reach choir, the Sidney woman is stoked to sing in the athletes during the opening parade this year, but behind that joy lurks a sadness.

After decades of building relationships and life-changing moments, the 50th event June 9 to 11 marks the last lap for the track and field event that started in 1971.

“I’m very, very, very sad about it because most of my friends live in Vancouver and they come from Vancouver to go to UVic and I get to see them once a year. I look forward to it,” Light said. “Now I won’t see them anymore after this year so I’m going to be really sad.”

It’s also a sad time for founding member and president Judith Armstrong, who has been there since the first half-day event of just track and field. That quickly evolved into an overnight event that drew competitors from around the province to stay in dorms at the University of Victoria using a camp model – it built relationships and changed lives.

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Jackson Skerratt started as a counsellor to fulfill high school volunteer credits.

“I signed up for one weekend and I ended up going back, probably 10 years in total since. I just loved it,” he said. “You’ve never met a happier group of people in your entire life. The whole weekend is full of smiles.”

Now the weekend includes the standard track competition – Light likes running, standing jump, shot, wheelbarrow race and other activities.

“I think a highlight would be the dinner dance … It’s really hard not to enjoy yourself at that moment in time,” Skerratt said.

The dance is too much for Light - she hangs out in the dorm instead. It’s just another thing she’ll miss – the independence of a weekend away from home, sleeping in a dorm.

There was a point in the 1980s where it peaked at 900 competitors, Armstrong said. With other opportunities now available, about 400 people from around B.C. take part each year – except the last three. Health restrictions led to cancelled events, and a smaller one-day return for 2022.

This year, they’re back full bore for the finale and Armstrong looks forward to the Friday afternoon arrivals, where folks from around the province roll into the parking lot and greet old friends.

“It will be a loss. One group talked about how their group saves up so they can come very year. We’ve got groups that have been coming a long time,” Armstrong said. “We know that individuals have stayed in touch through the years. It’s one of those things that has the potential to broaden everyone’s circle.”

It had that effect on Skerratt. The experience was so positive, he spread the word to his friends.

“You can go in and just be a good person and you’re going to have so much fun,” Skerratt said. “They all have great things to say about it.”

READ ALSO: Operation Trackshoes returns with scaled-back event at University of Victoria

Even with a hectic work schedule and a young family, he plans to stop by for a visit this June.

What started as providing an accessible opportunity, remains a legacy of the organization for athletes and counsellors – some people found their calling after volunteering.

“What I still see is people with other opportunities still come back to Operation Trackshoes because it’s been the place of connection. We really do ensure that you can participate at any level of ability,” Armstrong said.

The detail and organization that goes into the event is huge.

Running a sporting event solely by volunteer power, for people with complex needs, is massive and as the board approached the 50th anniversary, which would have been 2020, they started looking at a succession plan.

Despite the work the last few years, no new leadership has come forward.

“It’s a huge event and we’re entirely volunteer run,” Armstrong said.

She’ll miss watching the groups sitting in circles and chatting, exuding an air of welcome and inclusivity.

“It’s been an important piece of my life,” Armstrong said.

Light just hopes something will change, but plans to worry about that after this year’s event.

“I’m hoping that they change their mind. Wait and see what they say. I’m just sad about it,” Light said.

Organizers are still looking for volunteers to help coordinate the final year June 9 and 10. Those interested can email

Christine van Reeuwyk

About the Author: Christine van Reeuwyk

I'm dedicated to serving the community of Oak Bay as a senior journalist with the Greater Victoria news team.
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