The annual Special Olympics Red Deer Celebrity Breakfast was held Tuesday at Westerner Park featuring Olympic hockey star Shannon Szabados.
Hundreds attended to hear Szabados talk about her early experiences starting out in hockey – at just five years old – right up to Canada’s Women’s Olympic Team.
Prior to her speech, Jerry Tennant, chair of the Special Olympics Red Deer, spoke about the latest happenings with the organization. He noted that this year marked the eighth annual breakfast, and the event was also a sell-out.
“Our mandate is to improve the lives of individuals with intellectual disabilities through sport,” he said. “In Red Deer, we do that by offering 11 different sport programs for over 250 athletes. We also have 50 coaches and other volunteers.”
“We always try to have our athletes to at least one out of town activity as well as hosting a number of our own competition so they have the chance to excel in their own particular sports.”
Looking ahead, nine Red Deer athletes have been chosen to be on Team Alberta and represent the province next month at the national games in Vancouver.
As for Szabados, a passion for hockey came, as mentioned, in early childhood.
“When you are that age you don’t realize who you are playing with,” she chuckled, noting there was just no women’s or girls’ hockey at the time. “I just wanted to play hockey.”
She played pewee when she was still atom age, bantam when she was peewee age and Midget AAA when she was still a bantam aged player.
She became the first and only female to play in the WHL and played her first game against the Vancouver Giants with Carey Price of the Montreal Canadians as her backup on the bench.
She stopped 20 of 22 shots that game. She went on to play five years of Junior A in the AJHL where she played in one Top Prospects game, two All-Star games, was named her team’s Most Valuable Player twice and was named the League’s Top Goaltender in 2007.
After 18 years of playing men’s hockey she joined Team Canada full time to train for the 2010 Olympics.
She led Team Canada to a gold medal in what was quoted as “One of the greatest goaltending performances in the history of the women’s game.”
She shut out the Americans 2-0 stopping all 28 shots. For her efforts she was named to the Olympic All-Star Team, and was also named the Olympics’ Top Goaltender.
Szabados was later the starting goaltender for Team Canada at the Sochi 2014 Olympics and became the first goalie in the history of the Women’s National Team to start in two Olympic gold medal games.
She recalled the grueling bootcamp she and her teammates endured prior to both the Vancouver and Sochi games, but pointed out that times like that helped bond the women together and ultimately contributed to victory. “Every single thing we did was timed, and was a race,” she recalls.
But a tenacity was built into the team via the adversity – it was a challenging year prior to Sochi in particular marked by several losses, she said.
“We decided to forget it and said yes, it’s been a tough year but we can do this. We’ve been through it all, let’s just do this.”
The team landed a tremendous comeback during that last game, and ultimately took gold. The coach told her prior to the game he was confident in her. “He said you were built for this – you were built for big games.
“I was ready, and I think as a team we were all ready. I think it was all the challenges we had been through that made us ready for that game,” she said. “So my message is that adversity not only makes us better teammates, better players, but it makes us better people as well.”