When Torben Schuffert buckles on his racing snowshoes at the end of February for the Special Olympics Canada Winter Games (SOCWG) in Thunder Bay, ON it will not only be his second time competing at the national level, but his second sport.
Torben first got involved in local Special Olympics as an alpine skier eight years ago when he was 11 years old. In 2015, he qualified to represent Team BC at the 2016 SOCWG in Corner Brook, N.L. where he finished fifth in the giant slalom, and sixth in both the slalom and super G.
But Torben, who has also competed in Special Olympics track and field and swimming locally to great success, was looking for another challenge.
“Snowshoeing is harder and I like trying different things,” he said.
He is very excited about going back to the national games, saying the best thing is the camaraderie.
“You see your old friends, new friends and having fun and getting out and doing your very best,” he said.
Torben is one of three Team BC members from Smithers going to the games. Sandra Schuffert plays the dual role of coach and proud mom.
“If you think that when he was one-and-a-half, we were told he wouldn’t walk, I’m actually very proud,” she said.
Snowshoeing is a new addition to the local Special Olympics program. Sandra said she had no experience with the sport before taking it on.
“We always wanted to offer snowshoeing because you can have a wide variety of athletes competing in snowshoeing or even just coming out on a weekly basis to practice and just keep fit for the winter,” she said.
“Everyone always wanted to do it, but no one had the time so I finally said, ‘I’ll try,’ so we started and eight weeks later we’re at the regional qualifiers.”
Last February in Vernon, Torben qualified for Team BC by virtue of two silver medals. He also picked up a team silver in the relay along with fellow Northwest athletes Brandon Hahn, Kaylee Richter and Brooke Karrer.
Sandra said with Torben it comes down to sheer determination.
“He’s persevering and he’s putting in all the extra practices, I think that’s what makes him good, because when he realized he couldn’t really do it, he tried harder,” she said.
Sandra had already been chosen to go to Thunder Bay as a coach before Torben qualified. It will be her first time at the national competition.
“I’m actually very excited,” she said. “If you’ve ever been around athletes they are so supportive of each other, even if they’re kind of running against each other they’re still cheering for each other.
“Even though I think there will be very little sleep for coaches and mission staff, I think it’s very rare just going there and just spending time celebrating the little, tiny victories.”
Sandra will not be Torben’s coach at the Canada Games, though, as one of the goals of these events is to foster independence in the athletes.
The third member of the Smithers contingent going to Thunder Bay is Carla Zilkowsky, who joins the Team BC mission staff as medical liaison.
Two years ago she was asked to go to Kamloops as medical liaison for Smithers at the summer games and again in 2019 for the winter games.
“They were looking for a medical liaison for B.C. and so I submitted a little resume and I was lucky enough to get chosen,” she said.
“I’m over the top, it’s fantastic, I haven’t had so much fun in such a long time. You wake up smiling and you spend the whole day with a smile and you go to bed with a smile. It’s a very wide and diverse group. They keep me on my toes and I’d like to say I keep them on their toes.
Torben said that is undoubtedly true, including early wake up calls whether he wants to get out of bed or not.
Zilkowsky said Special Olympics athletes present some unique challenges, particularly when travelling across time zones.
“I look at any medications they’re on, if we’re going to need to adjust them,” she explained. “There’s a three-hour time difference. Some of the meds are pretty fairly forgiving and some need a closer eye.”
She also keeps a close eye on medical histories and underlying conditions noting the goal is to prevent the athletes from succumbing to something that would keep them out of competition.
The Thunder Bay games are scheduled for Feb. 25 to 29 and are a qualifier for the 2021 World Winter Games (location to be announced).
Torben thinks he will be there.
“I’m very confident,” he said.
He also had a message for the the town.
“If anyone sees me around in Smithers wearing a tuque, a blue (Special Olympics) one, please stop by… and see me and stop me and hang out,” he said.
During the SOCWG, the Bulkley Valley Christian School (BVCS) distributed learning student will be getting lots of support from back home.
“We’re cheering for Torben Schuffert at the 2020 Special Olympics Canada Winter Games!” says a post on the BVCS Facebook page. “Go Team BC, and Go Torben!”