This dragon boat team for kids with autism is pushing through more than just waves

·3 min read
One of the boats gliding across the waves at Saturday's Ottawa Dragon Boat Festival held the team from Ausome Ottawa. it's a sports and recreation charity for kids on the autism spectrum.   (Giacomo Panico/CBC - image credit)
One of the boats gliding across the waves at Saturday's Ottawa Dragon Boat Festival held the team from Ausome Ottawa. it's a sports and recreation charity for kids on the autism spectrum. (Giacomo Panico/CBC - image credit)

With the Ottawa Dragon Boat Festival back after a two-year pandemic hiatus, one team pushed off into the Rideau River Saturday with more than just speed and a gold medal in mind.

One of the boats gliding across the waves in Mooney's Bay held the team from Ausome Ottawa, a sports and recreation charity for kids on the autism spectrum.

The charity seeks to fill a gap in the community, as many sporting events aren't designed for children with autism or other neurodivergent conditions.

"Neurotypical sport isn't really geared to our kids," said Kayla Garvey, program supervisor and long-serving staff member.

"These programs that we run, we mould them to fit our children. We don't want to change our children. We don't want them to fit the typical mould that some coaches would want."

Sticking to that mission statement, during Saturday's race the team allowed for parents and others to show support by jumping in the boat, with staff cheering them all on.

If someone in the boat felt angry that something wasn't going their way, the team was also ready to just take a second to breathe and calm down before continuing to push through the water.

About more than winning

Garvey said some children become "very excited" when told they need to use their "superhero power" and push harder — with some even screaming.

"Dragon boats [are] something special. We're all trapped on a boat together," she said. "So we have to make the best of it. We have to get along."

The team's coach, Andrea Nicholls, said children in the boat don't always communicate verbally, sometimes relying on physical cues instead.

Speaking ahead of race day, Nicholls said their goal was to not only finish the race but also improve on their previous times.

"It's not about winning the race for us. It's about being together, being a team and putting what we practiced into action," she told CBC Radio's In Town and Out.

Giacomo Panico/CBC
Giacomo Panico/CBC

'Go big or go home'

"In our house, it's go big or go home," said Tori Hammond, whose son Finn helps paddle the boat.

"Otherwise, he'll be one of those kids that we never know how far he can go. We never know what challenges he wants to do."

Logan Ryan, who sits at the dragon boat's front, said he feels like an important part of the team. With his mother Nina sitting next to him, the two help set the pace for those behind them.

While some of Logan's classmates may feel frustrated he can't play other sports at the same level, Ausome Ottawa has created an environment, Nina said, where her son quickly picked up the skills to race on the water.

"I feel proud. Like I can do things. Like I can accomplish things," Logan said.

"They have a knack for teaching kids on the spectrum," Nina added. "I'm super proud of him."

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