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Special Olympics Canada Athlete Excels in Gym & Kitchen

Male athlete squats on stage in a competition.
Michael Bandler took home the gold medal in powerlifting at the 2019 Abu Dhabi World Games.

A passion for the culinary arts comes to people in different ways. For some, it’s learning family recipes in the kitchen from a young age. For others, it’s a taking cooking classes as a hobby.

For Michael Bandler, a Special Olympics Canada athlete, the passion came from… black light puppetry.

Sometimes life-changing discoveries can be found in the most unusual of places.

Michael, 34, used to work for the Famous People Players, a theater troupe based in Toronto specializing in black light puppetry.

The troupe is exclusively staffed by people with intellectual disabilities, and it’s not just the puppetry which patrons get to experience. Each show is accompanied by a three-course dinner, so not only are the troupe members tasked with administrative, artistic and performative duties, they also put together one of the highest-rated dining experiences in Toronto on a nightly basis.

Michael, who won four powerlifting medals at the 2019 Special Olympics World Games in Abu Dhabi, was initially tasked with handling the heaviest puppets. But it was the culinary aspect of the show which really inspired him.

“I grew to love the kitchen experience so much and it helped me understand basic fundamentals that I could apply to other areas of life. One day, I determined I had a real passion for this and there was something more I could do.”
Michael Bandler, Special Olympics Canada Athlete
A person works in the kitchen preparing a meal.
Michael Bandler in the kitchen at Fresh Restaurants location, a vegan, plant-based restaurant group located in Toronto.

He was right.

Michael took it upon himself to take a formal culinary program where he got connected with Suzanne Barr, one of North America’s most renowned chefs and an active supporter of inclusive environments.

Suzanne invited Michael to work in her new Toronto restaurant, True True Diner, where he would be a sous chef helping to prepare ingredients for patrons.

“At True True Diner, I learned there was a lot more that went into cooking besides just making a meal,” Michael said. “There’s planning, budgeting, shopping and so much more that goes into it.”

Right as Michael was finding his stride at True True Diner, the COVID-19 pandemic hit and permanently closed the restaurant.

Still determined to follow his passion, Michael began creating a series of how-to videos he posted to various social media pages to show his followers the steps to making some of his favorite dishes.

“During the pandemic, I cooked a ton at home and the videos made me better at not only making healthy meals, but also how to make them look good,” Michael said. “Preparation is everything—you don’t eat just with your taste buds; you also eat with your eyes. If it looks good, it’s going to taste even better.”

Michael perfected several signature dishes during the pandemic, notably garlic and lemon-infused salmon with asparagus and hand-crafted pizzas topped with olives, zucchini, mushrooms, roasted red peppers, artichokes and capocollo.

Now, Michael is a sous chef at Fresh Restaurants, a group of three vegan, plant-based restaurants located in Toronto.

“Working at Fresh and creating vegan meals has positively impacted my powerlifting training,” Michael said. “There are other ways of putting protein in my body without all the fat.”

Michael says his ultimate life goal is to be able to live independently and cook not only for himself, but also for his fiancé, Michelle.

“Special Olympics has instilled a never-give-up attitude inside me. I’ve met friends and achieved goals I’ve set for myself. Special Olympics helps me persevere and focus on what I want to accomplish.”
Michael Bandler

“Cooking inspires me to do more and keep going,” he said.

Michael—who can bench 310 pounds, squat 452 pounds and dead lift 501.5 pounds—is currently training to qualify for the 2023 Special Olympics World Games in Berlin and has found several connections between the kitchen and the gym.

“The structure and process of cooking have helped me with powerlifting because the format is similar,” Michael said. “The skills from the kitchen have positively impacted me with the weights in ways I would never have imagined.”

He credits Special Olympics for providing an inclusive community that he says has become an extension of his own family.

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