Ever since preschool, Ionela Garrett has had a great love for playing the game of soccer.
Now, as she moves into her adult life, Special Olympics soccer is looking like an activity she can aspire to for years to come.
“She’s a fantastic player,” said coach Wayne Williams, on Monday. “Ionela (pronounced ‘yo-Nella’) is one of our more talented ones.”
You can tell she’s been playing a long while and she has a good knowledge of the game.
“She’s a very driven girl when it comes to soccer — and when she pops in a goal that really motivates her.”
The 19-year-old was adopted from Romania by her parents Don and Judy when she was only three years old.
Soon after, she went along to her brother Ross’s soccer games and there was no holding her back.
“Hope Minor Soccer let her start a year early, at age 4, because she was good at running around,” said Judy, smiling.
Once Ionela got to high school she played for the Mustangs and made her mark when she scored Hope’s only goal against a very talented Abbotsford Traditional squad.
Officially, Ionela graduated last year — but she went back for a bonus year in 2014-2015 and will soon be attending sessions at the Tillicum Workshop.
“I did English, math, life skills, foods, physical fitness and woodworking,” said Ionela of her extra year’s studies.
Her first introduction to Chilliwack’s Special Olympics program was during the school strike in 2012, when soccer wasn’t offered at Hope Secondary according to mom.
Ionela signed up for baseball but then went back to school soccer for grade 11 and 12 before being aged-out and ineligible this year, so it was back to ‘Special O’ for soccer this year.
“There’s no aging-out in Special Olympics,” added Judy.
On the Chilliwack team, there are players from age 12 to 55.
“There are only four girls and the rest are guys,” said Ionela — though Coach Williams said the girls have no problem with that. “The girls just jump right in and play with the guys,” he said.
Ionela prefers to kick with her right foot, “but I like to use my head too,” she added.
And she works hard, too hard, sometimes.
“They had a tournament in Abbotsford on June 6th to end the season,” said Judy. “She had a piano recital on the same day, so she had to miss the first two games.”
“And it was skunking hot,” added Ionela. “I played two games and I scored one goal but I couldn’t play in the last game, because I was overheated.”
Coach Williams, who has been leading the Chilliwack soccer program for the past four years, mentioned this is the World Special Olympics year, which occurs every four years and will be held in Los Angeles.
Next season, teams will be competing to decide regional champions.
In 2017, those teams will move on to provincial championships, followed by a national event in 2018, leading up to the 2019 World championships.
“Two years ago, the Chilliwack soccer team went to the provincials and we won the gold medal in our division — but there was another team that won gold in their division and we missed going to the nationals by one goal,” said Williams.
Soccer isn’t the only game offered by the Chilliwack ‘Special O’ team.
“We have winter sports and summer sports,” said Williams. “In winter, we have bowling, ring hockey, basketball, power lifting and swimming — and in summer, we have rhythmic gymnastics, soccer, baseball and bocce.
“We’ve also started an Active Start program for kids aged 2 to 12 to teach important skills and to prepare them for playing sports. Thanks to sponsorships and donations the program is able to keep registration fees at $30 per sport,” said Williams, who invited potential volunteers, coaches and athletes to check out the provincial website at specialolympics.bc.ca. Williams can also be reached by phone at 604-819-5408.