Katie Xu is having one of the most exciting weeks of her young life.
She's starring in a new ad campaign celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Special Olympics and on Saturday, as part of Global Day of Inclusion, she and her family are going to go to their local Tim Hortons where speciality donuts will be sold to support the charity and its athletes.
Xu competes in figure skating, swimming and soccer, and has won several medals at the Special Olympics. The new TV commercial shows her, as well as fellow athletes Connor Bissett and Mark Peddle training for their sports but also applying lessons from the program to their day-to-day lives.
"The Special Olympics has changed my life," said the 20-year-old Xu from her home in Ottawa. "To make friends, meet new people, and get to travel with my team and having fun playing sports."
Xu and her family travelled to Toronto to film the commercial, which shows her practising on the ice as her mother Jennifer Ji proudly watches on. Near the end of the ad, Xu, who is autistic, is standing before a classroom, about to begin a presentation.
It's a progression that mirrors Xu's life.
Before getting involved with the Special Olympics, Ji said Katie didn't speak very often or participate at school. Ji said Katie's athletic experience, including competing at the World Games, has given her the confidence and determination to not only earn gold medals but speak publicly in front of her classmates.
"It's opened the door for her, given her a lot of opportunities," said Ji. "She competes at the regional level, the provincial level, even the world level. It's opened her mind. Through the Special Olympics she's seen the world. That's amazing.
"She's grown up from a very little, vulnerable kid. Now she's built up her confidence. She's fit, energetic, she's a very beautiful young lady."
Founded by Eunice Kennedy Shriver on July 20, 1968, the Special Olympics provides athletic training and competitions for five million athletes with intellectual disabilities in 172 countries. The organization's principles were based in part on the research of Dr. Frank Hayden, a physical education professor from London, Ont., whose studies found that exercise would be beneficial for people with intellectual disabilities and impact their personal lives.
Special Olympics Canada is commemorating its 50th anniversary with a national awareness campaign centred around the hashtag #ChallengeAcceptedSOC. The campaign encourages people to participate in the organization and challenge their perception of people with intellectual disabilities.
Global Day of Inclusion is the first milestone in the year-long celebration. A donut designed by Special Olympics athletes from Alberta will be sold at Tim Hortons locations across the country, with proceeds going to the charity. Global Day of Inclusion is also an opportunity to raise awareness about the issues surrounding people with intellectual disabilities.
"We're really staking our claim to that day. It really was born from what used to be a day of sport that happened at the community level," Olympic champion swimmer Mark Tewksbury, the chair and president of Special Olympics Canada's board of directors. "Because there's so much going on around this 50th anniversary, I think that up here in Canada we're focusing on the awayness side rather than the activity side.
"This is paying homage to the (vision of Kennedy Shriver and Hayden) that we can't forget that it's worth fighting for society that respects people and includes people, regardless of their ability."
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John Chidley-Hill, The Canadian Press
Note to readers: This is a a corrected version of an earlier story. Jennifer Ji is the name of Katie Xu's mother.