Désirée Allen had always heard the words, “you can’t.”
But the Ramara resident has been changing those words to, “you can,” for the last eight years as a Special Olympian.
Désirée and her twin brother were just over two-years-old when they were adopted by Hélène Deschenes-Allen and Tim Allen.
“We knew there was some learning disability, but it was difficult to figure what,” said Deschenes-Allen. “We had to battle with the medical field until we had the opportunity to take them St. Michael's Hospital for an evaluation. The twins were assessed to have Alcohol-Related Neurological Disorder.”
Prominent symptoms include problems with memory, slow cognitive or auditory functioning, difficulty in decision-making, developmental dysmaturity (the persistence of a pattern consistent with an earlier developmental stage), and different responses to stimuli, she explained.
The clinical list may explain the situation to doctors and caretakers, but for Désirée and her brother, everything was based on day-to-day experiences.
“Both of us were bullied,” she said. “People called us retarded and stupid. And they would say, ‘Oh, you can't do that.’ That was repeated every day.”
On top of that, Désirée said her educational assistant would stand right behind her, watching over her shoulder.
“How would that make you feel?” she asked.
With cognitive functioning at a different level than their peers, it was difficult to work at the same pace, Désirée said.
“You can't remember what happened in school yesterday, but you can remember what happened in gym class that morning,” she said. “And then the teacher would refer to something from the last day or the week before and I couldn't remember. Frustrated, I would leave the room.”
Lashing out at bullies would end up getting Désirée into trouble.
Her parents realized Désirée could turn her excess energy to her advantage, so they introduced her to sports through Special Olympics Orillia.
“At first, it was because I wanted to race in skiing,” said Désirée. “Then I found out there was swimming — and then soccer and track.”
The 23-year-old said the first competition is what matters because it gives you confidence, motivation, a sense of reward, and encouragement in yourself.
With 19 medals to her name, Désirée has made sure her naysayers know that she can.
Earlier this year, she participated in the Special Olympics World Games held in Abu Dhabi, where she got to meet and befriend athletes from around the world.
“The only sightseeing we got to do was go on the roller coaster in Abu Dhabi,” said Désirée. “We also visited a mosque there. We went in the desert outside Dubai and I rode a camel. I also rolled around in the sand dunes — that was fun.”
She’s competed in tournaments held in Peterborough, Guelph, Toronto, and London in Ontario and has also participated in games held in Winnipeg and Nova Scotia.
In May 2020, Désirée hopes to go to Waterloo for Special Olympics Provincial Games, where she will compete in swimming. The Georgian College student also aims to go to Berlin for Special Olympics World Games in 2023.
She trains every day to prepare for year-round competitions, going for 15k runs on her own or doing 8k runs with the her school team, the Georgian Grizzlies.
She’s the first ever athlete with a learning disability to be accepted to the college cross-country team. She also runs with the Newmarket Huskies track and cross-country teams.
Désirée hopes to graduate from the Community Integration Through Co-operative Education at Georgian College and start her own pet grooming and fitness business.
She has encouraged her friends to come out to training sessions and join Special Olympics Orillia, because it’s a great way of making friends and finding your strengths.
Through her achievements with Special Olympics Orillia, she wants all those with intellectual disabilities to know that they can.
For more information on how you can participate in Special Olympics Orillia as a volunteer, athlete, or donor, visit orillia.specialolympicsontario.ca.