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Countdown begins for athletes and Plungey the Polar Bear (3 photos)

Special Olympics Ontario 2019 Provincial Winter Games will be held in Sault Ste. Marie Jan. 31 to Feb. 3, 2019; Essar Centre speeches kick off one year countdown
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A number of Special Olympians and law enforcement officials joined Sault Mayor Christian Provenzano at the Essar Centre Tuesday to commence the one year countdown for the Special Olympics Ontario 2019 Provincial Winter Games, which will be held in Sault Ste. Marie Jan. 31 to Feb. 3, 2019.

It is anticipated approximately 500 athletes and coaches will be visiting from all over Ontario, as well as Michigan athletes who wish to participate, along with their friends and families, for a total of about 1,000 people converging on the Sault for the Games.

The Essar Centre will be the marquee location for the opening and closing ceremonies, with three outdoor sports (downhill and cross-country skiing and snowshoeing) to be held at Searchmont Resort, speed skating and figure skating at the John Rhodes Centre, and curling hosted at Community First Curling Centre.   

Athlete Kristen Bonenfant of the Sault, a curler, is a seasoned competitor at Special Olympic games.

Bonenfant, 36, has been competing in Special Olympic events since she was 12, in curling and in track and field.

“It’s my hometown and curling is my family’s tradition. I’m a third-generation curler so these games are very important to me…my mom will probably be one of the coaches, and in 2001 my mom was my coach, my sister was a coach for another athlete, so it was a real family affair,” said Bonenfant, who has won over two-dozen awards at competitions over the years.

“Right now I prefer winter sports. I used to do track, curling’s easier on my legs,” Bonenfant chuckled as she spoke with SooToday.

“I’m always happy to be a part of anything connected to the Special Olympics,” Provenzano said in a speech delivered at centre ice.

“Special Olympians continue to have a positive impact on our community…winter sports and Sault Ste. Marie are a natural fit, and we are excited to play host to this fantastic event and our world class athletes.”

A number of fundraising events are planned over the next year to raise $600,000 needed to help run the Games, said Jodi Nastor, Special Olympics Ontario 2019 Provincial Winter Games fundraising chair.

The first major fundraising event is the Twin Saults Polar Plunge, to be held at Elks Lodge 552 at 1111 East Portage Avenue in Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan Saturday, March 10.

All details related to the Special Olympics Ontario 2019 Provincial Winter Games, including how to help the organizers reach their fundraising goal of $600,000, may be found on the event’s website 

Special Olympics is the charity of choice for the International Association of Chiefs of Police, and local law enforcement agencies are busy organizing the Games.

“As of January 2nd, my position as Games Manager has officially commenced, and our Games office is located at 1 Herrick Street, on the second floor of the Centre for Social Justice and Good Works,” said Sault Police Service Constable Shaun Beaulieu.

“Our goal is to be self sufficient and pay for these games locally. In the event we don’t meet our fundraising goal, funds will come out of the Special Olympics provincial budget, but as the host organization our goal is to pay for the Games ourselves,” Beaulieu told SooToday, adding some local companies have come on board for sponsorship.

“We’d be happy to have people come in on the volunteering end as well.”

The Ontario Association of Chiefs of Police will also be in town for a conference at the same time as the Games, drawing about 200 to 300 officers who will attend the opening ceremonies.

Officers will take part in the Torch Run, carrying the Flame of Hope, the symbol of Special Olympics, across the International Bridge.

“Now that I’m fully immersed into the position (as Games Manager), there’s definitely a lot to be done, but it’s exciting to start chipping away at the big ball of things that need to be done still,” Beaulieu said.

“It’s an honour for our city and our surrounding area to be hosting the games,” said Sault OPP Sgt. Monique Baker, media chair for the Special Olympics Ontario 2019 Provincial Winter Games, in an address delivered at Tuesday’s event.