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'No barriers': Former figure skating champion Elizabeth Manley reflects on Special Olympics

Elizabeth Manley, whose stunning performance at the 1988 Calgary Olympics still resonates, has returned to the city for the Special Olympics. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press - image credit)
Elizabeth Manley, whose stunning performance at the 1988 Calgary Olympics still resonates, has returned to the city for the Special Olympics. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press - image credit)

Elizabeth Manley is back in Calgary for the Special Olympics Canada Winter Games — and she can't resist sharing her excitement as she roots for athletes hoping to make a mark.

"Going to those opening ceremonies last night, just, you know, revamped so many memories for me, and these athletes are just outstanding. They are so excited to be here. They're so motivated and just an inspiration," Manley said in an interview on the Calgary Eyeopener.

"To be in Calgary, right beside the Saddledome, cheering on a whole new slew of amazing athletes was, I don't know, it was priceless."

The figure skater was 22 years old when she took home the silver medal in the women's singles category at the 1988 Olympics in Calgary, creating history with her remarkable feat.

Manley was, in fact, unwell when she was competing at the Olympics, trying to overcome a "bad flu bug."

She wasn't sure whether she'd be able to make it. However, she had a plethora of supporters on her side, including legendary hockey coach Dave King.

LISTEN I Elizabeth Manley on her journey and the Special Olympics:

"He had brought the team to watch me practise, which you would never see in [the] Olympic Games, the hockey team going to figure skating practice," Manley said.

It was before the big game and Manley couldn't help but wonder why King decided to bring his team to the practice session.

"I asked him, I said, 'why were you here?' And he said, 'I got to tell you … we have our big game tonight and I just wanted my team to be inspired by a champion."

Inspired by King's words, the figure skater decided to go for it.

"It was the power of those words at that moment. It just, it changed the whole trajectory of what happened to me in Calgary."

Manley told herself she was going to go ahead and compete "no matter what."

"Words matter no matter what type of life you're living. You know, it's so important that we're, you know, that we're kind to each other and we support each other and that we motivate each other," she said.

"And so it's the power of words, and that's what I'm all about today and that's what I [will] try to do for these athletes in Calgary this week is just, you know, encourage them and make them feel like they are champions already."

Canada's Elizabeth Manley competes at the 1988 Calgary Olympics.
Canada's Elizabeth Manley competes at the 1988 Calgary Olympics.

Canada's Elizabeth Manley competes at the 1988 Calgary Olympics. She was 22 years old when she took home the silver medal in the women's singles category. (Bob Martin/Allsport/Getty Images)

Passion at the forefront

The figure skater's primary goal is to offer advice and support to the athletes competing this week. While some are aiming to win coveted spots on the national team, others are hoping to surpass their personal best records.

"I'm just really here to take in as much as possible," Manley said.

She added that she's been spending time and interacting with athletes this week and is blown away by their enthusiasm.

"If you want a day of just pure enjoyment and inspiration, come out and see an event because these athletes will give it to you, and they are just so passionate about what they're doing. And this is, you know, one of the main reasons I wanted to come out."

Karen Dommett,  who is the general manager for the Special Olympics Canada Winter Games, says Manley has already run workshops for figure skaters competing in the Special Olympics.

Around 800 athletes in total across all categories are expected to compete, with 44 in the figure skating category.

"On Tuesday, she [Manley] ran some training sessions and coaching clinics with the athletes and coaches here," Dommett said.

"Our athletes are now competing today, so this afternoon, she officially opened the event for figure skating with some incredible inspirational words to the athletes here competing in figure skating."

No barriers

Meanwhile, Manley is impressed by the athletes' expertise.

"These guys have worked so hard.… I couldn't be more proud of them. I'm so impressed with their level, their abilities. That's what impresses me the most," she said.

"There should be, you know, no barriers in sport. We should all be able to do it no matter what our situation may be."