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'One-of-a-kind' local Special Olympian going for gold at nationals

'I'm really excited about the challenge of skating with the best Canada has got,' says Special Olympic athlete Stephen Graham
Stephen Graham is heading to Calgary next week to represent Orillia at Special Olympics Nationals in speed skating.

Accomplished speed skater Stephen Graham is heading to Calgary to represent Orillia at Special Olympics Nationals.

Graham, who garnered gold at both regionals and provincials this year, says it will be "an honour" to be the only athlete from Orillia representing his community on the biggest stage.

"I'd like to thank the Orillia Special Olympics council and Orillians who have supported me in all my ventures," he said. "Without the support and encouragement of the community, I wouldn't have these opportunities."  

Graham, 42, has previously competed on the national stage 10 times, eight times for speed skating and twice for track and field. He is a three-time national champion and has also shone on the world stage.

"It gives you happiness for the dedication you put yourself through and all the hours of training," he said. "I can't say enough about how rewarding it is to give it your best on that stage and to have fun."

Stephen Graham has been competing in several sports as part of Special Olympics Orillia for more than two decades. Here he is shown with the torch at the annual fundraiser for Special Olympics.

Graham, an Orillia District Collegiate & Vocational Institute graduate, trains five days a week all year round: swimming, cycling, going to the weight room, and speed skating at the Allandale Recreation Centre.

Despite competing at nationals numerous times, he says he never takes the privilege for granted.

"It's an experience I may never again have," he said. "I try to take it all in and have a good experience."

Graham started speed skating when he was 16 after one of his hockey coaches saw the potential of his speed.

"I started with hockey skates for my first three years," he said. "Once I switched over to speed skates, I never looked back."

Graham says speed skating is a "thrilling" individual sport.

"You really have to push yourself to get the results," he said. "It takes a lot of determination."

Over the years, Graham says he's put in the extra time and effort to fine-tune the small nuances of speed skating to improve his skills.

"There is a big mental component," he said. "You have to have the right mindset."

Four years ago, Graham suffered a lower-body injury which set him back mentally and hurt his confidence.

"I didn't even know if I wanted to do it anymore," he said. "I've pushed through again and have been able to get myself back skating to how I was before."

With a confidence resurgence, Graham is full steam ahead for the nationals, which begin on Tuesday, Feb. 27.  

"I've worked hard for it this year," he said. "I'm really excited about the challenge of skating with the best Canada has got."

Graham's speed skating coach, Brenton McNicol, says the Orillia athlete has many qualities that make him an outstanding athlete; his best trait is his drive and determination.

"He’s the type of athlete that will get up at five in the morning and go for a 50–100-kilometre bike ride," he explained. "He has an engine that doesn’t know how to stop."

McNicol says Graham puts his body through a tough training schedule and takes no days off.

"A big factor to his success is just his love for speed skating and sports in general," he said.

McNicol says he has no doubts about Graham's chances at nationals.

"I believe in him, and I have set up a good plan for him to succeed and come home with some hardware at nationals," he said. "He has put the work in, now it just comes down to executing it in Calgary."

McNicol calls Graham an "inspiration" and a great role model for the community.

"Stephen is a one-of-a-kind individual," he said. "He strives to better himself every day in sport and life."

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Tyler Evans

About the Author: Tyler Evans

Tyler Evans got his start in the news business when he was just 15-years-old and now serves as a video producer and reporter with OrilliaMatters
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