Cathy Mason was at work one day when somebody appealed to her to coach a Special Olympics floor hockey team. Twenty-six years later she is the chef de mission for Team Nova Scotia at the upcoming national summer games in Antigonish.
“When I saw how much fun the athletes were having I was hooked instantly,” said Mason who works for Highland Community Residential Services.
The first non-staff person ever to be named chef de mission for the Nova Scotia team, Mason is in charge of 117 athletes as well as 47 coaches and mission staff. At the moment her excitement about showcasing the province’s talent far outweighs her worries about logistics.
“This is the largest group Nova Scotia has ever sent to nationals. To have so many athletes competing in their home province where family and friends can come to watch is definitely the most exciting thing for me.”
Her worries are minimal because she is confident she has a great team of staff and volunteers to deliver a warm Nova Scotia welcome and a memorable experience for competitors and families.
“We have a lot of wonderful volunteers and supportive families and the Sharpes are both. To have a terrific athlete, his parents and his three brothers involved is incredibly special,” she said.
The athlete is Evan Sharpe, a 23-year-old swimmer who has been working at Kent Building Supplies for the past three years. As a winter season curler, he was recently part of Special Olympics Nova Scotia’s team of the year. His parents are Paula and Tracey, who operate Dean Sharpe’s service station at Blue Acres. His brothers are Ryan, who works in finance at Sobeys, a major supporter of the games, and Dylan and Kalan, students at Northumberland Regional High School and Dr. W. A. MacLeod School.
It was Mason who first encouraged Evan to take part in Special Olympics, Paula pointed out.
“He was about 10 and needed to be 12 to compete but Cathy thought he might enjoy being with the swim team. He’d already been in swimming lessons so we thought we’d let him try and see how he liked it and then he’d be ready to compete at 12 if he wanted to.”
Mason thought she was offering Evan an opportunity for some fun but she was actually bringing a large, supportive family into the Special Olympics fold for years to come.
“We don’t often get a whole family involved. We had Hughie and Blanche Smith coach before when their son Adam was swimming and their other son Aaron went on to coach and be very involved with Special Olympics but at the time I was just thinking Evan would like this,” said Mason.
It turned out Evan really enjoyed the team and his family was always there to encourage him and other participants. When the team needed an assistant, Ryan, 15 or 16 at the time, was happy to pitch in.
“It was fun helping out. Everybody, including Evan, was having a great time so I was just happy to be involved with them,” said Ryan, who sees his ongoing involvement in the same light.
When they needed a coach, Tracey stepped up and went on to serve on committees and work at events.
“There are only so many people to go around so you try to do your part. Seeing how much Evan and the other athletes were getting out of it and how supportive they were of each other, I was glad to do what I could,” he said.
Paula quickly got involved with organizing and fundraising.
“The younger boys enjoyed being there and that made it easy to be involved. We’ve just continued helping anywhere we can through the years.”
Paula and Tracey remember a time at the old Y when Dylan, who was in an early elementary grade, asked how long before he could join the team.
“That tells you how much fun everybody has,” said Paula.
Five Pictou County athletes will be participating in the Antigonish games and for each of them it will be the first time in national competition.
While Evan is very supportive of his fellow athletes he also has a competitive streak.
“I always wanted to go to nationals. I was always working to get better and go,” he said, as his brothers joked about his confidence.
His parents found out about his selection before he did but had to wait for an official announcement.
“He was asking and asking and asking. Finally, I told him the selection was over with long ago and he’d be going to the games but he’d be in a back room washing dishes,” said Tracey.
Evan good-naturedly replied a lot of jokes are played in his house and some aren’t that funny.
“I would have gone and washed dishes but I am happier to be swimming,” he added.
Evan's parents and brothers have a campsite booked and are among 600 volunteers awaiting their assignments.
“I’d like to help in the cafeteria because that is where everybody comes and you meet lots of people,” said Kalan.
Dylan will be happy to go wherever he is directed.
“I’m not fussy. I just like seeing everybody enjoying their sports so I’ll help anywhere.”
The games, which are expected to attract 900 athletes and 3,000 spectators, take place July 31-Aug. 4 on St. Francis Xavier University Campus.
“I’m really proud that we can host with such top-notch facilities and accommodations. Only two of our nine sports will take place off campus so athletes and families are going to love having most everything at one location. It is also a very beautiful location and we expect everyone is going to have a great time,” said Mason.
The nationals in Antigonish serve as qualifiers for the 2019 Special Olympics World Games in Dubai which Mason will attend as mission staff.
She is not the only one with her eye on Dubai.
“I’d like to go. You never know,” said Evan.