Special Olympics athletes attend their March meeting earlier this month. The online gatherings were instituted a year ago to help the athletes maintain a sense of social connection. (Screenshot courtesy of Susan Simmons)

Special Olympics athletes attend their March meeting earlier this month. The online gatherings were instituted a year ago to help the athletes maintain a sense of social connection. (Screenshot courtesy of Susan Simmons)

Special Olympians from Vancouver Island and beyond mark year of growth through Zoom

Coach sets up calls to support social, physical, mental health

Susan Simmons’ carefully curated safe space on Zoom marked a year in March.

A swim coach of Special Olympics athletes, she immediately determined the coronavirus pandemic lockdown of spring 2020 could have dire effects on physical and social health. Simmons saw residents across Greater Victoria hunker down, shelter, and take care of themselves.

All meeting were put on hold, including Special Olympics training gatherings, which she knew were more than just a physical fitness routine.

RELATED: COVID-19, lack of pool has Greater Victoria marathon swimmer worried

“They’re highly social folks and the socializing and networking happens at the exercise programs,” she said.

Simmons always arrived an hour ahead of swim practice at Crystal Pool, just to check in with people as individuals. “Sometimes we were talking about things like challenges they were having in their commute, things they were struggling with.”

She figured a Zoom meeting could “feed two birds with one seed” if she melded the social and exercise components.

“I knew the lure would be connecting with their friends,” she said with a chuckle. “It’s all about being healthy physically and mentally.”

It started seven nights a week – now five – and over the course of the year, members have broken down over worry about friends and family, shared anxieties but also the joys of their days and lives.

READ ALSO: Spirit Orca swimmers tackle 80-kilometre Peninsula swim for COVID-19 relief

There are consistently 12-18 people on the calls. While most are from Greater Victoria, word of mouth has led to people from Powell River, Nanaimo, Ladysmith and Vancouver sometimes taking part.

The calls start with 15 minutes to get online and check in with each other, then 30 to 45 minutes of exercise, then another 45 minutes of chatter. Plus there’s a monthly dance.

“It’s pretty amazing to watch how they’ve grown into a group of people that support one another,” Simmons said. Conversation and support continues outside the Zoom room.

Caregiver Linda Turner sees the way Simmons set up the calls as inspiring an “amazing” transformation in her charge and others.

Those not usually verbal now feel safe sharing thoughts and opinions. The Zoom calls inspire each athlete in their own way – getting them talking, thinking and interacting.

“She’s making them very much feel that their opinion matters, and giving them the ability to voice them,” Turner said. “It’s amazing the difference it makes.”

Individuals are also developing skills to take with them as they move forward in life – with the coach assigning roles such as squad leader, someone to lead stretches, and a Zoom manager.

“It’s pretty fun to watch them grow as a community and as individuals,” Simmons said.

“This is the type of programming where you truly have value; where it goes beyond the moment in time you’re in the space with that person, whether in person or with Zoom.”

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