As a child, Marie Powell's parents always encouraged her parents to participate in sports. Growing up, her backyard was set up for outdoor activities like basketball and badminton. Her home was the go-to spot for all the kids in the neighborhood. However, while in junior high school, she found her true love. “In grade eight, my gym teacher noticed that I had endurance for running—which I never really thought I was very good at—but she really encouraged me to work on it and try out for the track and field team,” Powell says.
Powell's start with Special Olympics stemmed from the need to have sports in her life. When she was attending university, she knew she needed to round out her résumé. She attended a volunteer fair, similar to what many universities offer, and talked to a woman at the Special Olympics booth. After an engaging conversation, she joined as a volunteer and attended the athletics practice the next week. “I was hooked,” she says. “I knew that was a program I wanted to be part of, and that was an organization I wanted to be part of.”
As a reward for her contributions, the 15-year head coach was awarded the Special Olympics North America Community Outstanding Coach Award in April 2022. The Alberta, Canada–based coach was nominated for her efforts in coaching snowshoeing, but she also excels at coaching athletics. The award, given by Special Olympics North America (SONA), honors coaches for their contributions and efforts to enhance the lives of Special Olympics athletes.
“Marie deserves to be recognized as the SONA Community Outstanding Coach for 2021 because she embodies all that Special Olympics stands for,” Sarah Sin-Chan, Sport & Programs Coordinator for Special Olympics Canada, says. “She always puts the athletes’ needs first, and that is one of the many reasons why athletes and coaches look up to her and ask her for advice.”
During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, Powell didn’t stop learning. Whenever she had free time, she developed new skills and took a variety of courses on topics like mental performance and effective verbal and nonverbal communication. In addition, Special Olympics Alberta created a virtual program for athletes to stay connected during the pandemic. The focus was to create fitness initiatives and connect with athletes in virtual sessions. “Marie took an active lead in the PEAK Program [a virtual program that engaged athletes with training regimens and activities] and provided workouts based around the Fit 5 components [which encourage exercise and healthy eating] and led weekly athletics and snowshoe programs,” Sin-Chan says.
Powell contributed to the exercise aspect of the PEAK Program and created a program with eight coach-led sessions. “Each component developed our athletes in strength training, endurance, flexibility and balance,” she says. “[The athletes] were able to develop their specific muscle components to further heighten their strength training, so when they came back after almost two years of no programs in person, I noticed in my snowshoeing program their strength was really good.”
Her influence rubs off on the athletes as well. Powell coaches Jonathan Stel in snowshoeing and athletics. He describes Powell as the coach who pushes him the hardest. “She encourages me to do my personal best at all times and sets goals that motivate me to be the best I can be,” Stel says. “I have attended two National Games with Marie and both experiences were fun and exciting.”
Stel says the biggest lessons she has taught him are to pace himself and give 100% each time. “She also teaches me to have fun in my sports,” Stel says.
To encourage fun and teamwork, Powell and her athletes start off with a welcome huddle, a symbol that everyone is equal, and everyone belongs. It sets the tone, allowing everyone to show support for one another. Then after warmups, they go straight into drills and into practicing each discipline. “My team has come up with a vision, and their vision is active fun and active teamwork. We make sure we incorporate fun activity with teamwork all the time, and we talked about that in our welcome huddle,” Powell says.
Powell says she is still absorbing the fact that she earned such a prestigious award. “It’s a confidence booster,” she says, “and it’s validation that the work I am doing falls within the realms of where Special Olympics is going for athlete development, coach development and moving our programs forward.
“I hope [the award] shares the message that the more we share resources as coaches, the more that we talk and we network with each other, the greater all of our skills will be collectively,” Powell says.
Powell also hopes the award is a representation of what Canadian coaching is all about.
Special Olympics is proud to partner with Gallagher, Official Sponsor of Special Olympics International Sport and Coach Programming. Special Olympics and Gallagher are empowering athletes with and without intellectual disabilities to face their future with confidence—on and off the playing field—through quality coaching and sports training experiences. Thanks to Gallagher’s support, a $1500 stipend has been awarded to Special Olympics Alberta to facilitate the professional development of the winner and the growth of the Coach Education Program within Special Olympics Alberta.