Skaters add Oak Bay edge to Special O event

Oak Bay figure skaters compete at BC Winter Games with Special Olympics BC

Emily Walzak (left) Martin Newham

Emily Walzak (left) Martin Newham

The Zone 6 team features Oak Bay flair as Special Olympics BC figure skaters debut in the BC Winter Games.

Tess van Straaten, a familiar face on the local news, is among the leadership of that contingent who train at Oak Bay Rec each Saturday.

“This is the first year the BC Winter Games has that category in it so it’s exciting. It’ll be a really great experience. It’s always so neat to see the sportsmanship and camaraderie,” she said. “Games are a really fun experience for anyone who’s been an athlete. You’re focused on just that for a day or days.

“They’re long days and physically you’re on your feet early in the morning to late in the day. You get tired but it’s such an energy rush.”

Van Straaten started coaching in 1999 in Kitimat as she embarked on a career anchoring the evening news in Terrace. Since then her coaching career followed her television one – the only break a handful of years in Australia – in Calgary, Lethbridge, Winnipeg and back to Victoria where she first laced her skates as a kid.

She’s among those who can say they skated at the old Memorial Arena with the Victoria Figure Skating Club, then moved on to the Racquet Club near the University of Victoria.

She started coaching Special Olympics in 1999, and it’s her third year coaching the skaters locally.

“CHEK did a story on (skater Emily Walzak) and when I interviewed her she told me skating had changed her life. That’s why I volunteer my time to do this – it’s so amazing to see the difference sport makes in the lives of our athletes,” van Straaten said.

“They’ll start out learning something new, then there’s that moment they can do it and they realize if they work hard they can achieve that. It’s neat to see that progression.”

SOBC figure skater Walzak started training with van Straaten about three years ago.

“She works so hard and has such a positive attitude,” said van Straaten. “She’s come so far in so short a time.”

Walzak, 25, anticipates a great first BC Games – meeting other athletes from all sports from across the province.

“My favourite part of competing is meeting new people in all different sports,” she said.

In competition, her strength lies in her attitude.

“We get marked on presentation,” she says. “Everybody always says I have a nice smile.”

Walzak, in her fourth year of training and hot off a fifth-place finish at the SOBC Canada Games last year, is primed for a personal best performance.

“I’ve been training pretty hard, I feel strong,” she said. “(I plan to) just skate my best and work hard.”

She looks forward to offering her Romeo and Juliet program.

“I’ve worked hard on it so I’m really proud of it,” she said. “It’s pretty graceful and I think I do a pretty good job.”

Walzak returns the fondness of her coaches, thrilled that longtime coach Martin Newham will travel as an adult supervisor for the Games.

“I’ve been with him since the beginning,” Walzak said. “He’s the best. He’s patient and kind and sincere.”

She holds similar respect for van Straaten.

“She’s lovely. She makes me work hard. That’s what a coach is supposed to do though,” Walzak said. “We get along well and stuff. She’s a good person to be around.”

Rounding out the foursome is athlete Desiree Grubell who also went to the Special Olympics BC Winter Games in Kamloops last February with Walzak.

“One thing about Special Olympics athletes that really stands out is how supportive they are of each other,” said van Straaten.

“It’s not always about winning, it’s about competing and supporting each another and doing your personal best.”