News Story

Mormon Athletes Raise the Bar

Canadian athletes Natalie Olson, Riley McLean and Joshua Sloan share a common faith as members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and are pursuing and achieving excellence in many areas of their lives as differently abled athletes.


Natalie Olson

In many ways, 28-year-old Natalie Olson of Calgary, Alberta, is a typical young adult. She works, is continuing her education and enjoys a close network of family and friends. Her athletic pursuits, however, have already made history. Olson is the first Canadian with Down syndrome to earn the rank of black belt in Wado Kai karate.

In 2014 Olson represented Canada at the first WKF World Championships for Athletes with a Disability in Bremen, Germany, where she earned eighth place. In October 2016 she won a silver medal in the para-karate category at the World Karate Championships in Linz, Austria, and is now training for the 2018 World Championships to be held in Lima, Peru.

Olson’s mother, Barbara, says, “Because of the emphasis by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints on self-reliance, Natalie has learned to be a goal-setter, and this has had an influence on her striving to be her best in karate.”

As an ambassador for the Canadian Down Syndrome Society (CDSS), Olson has represented Canada at the World Congress on Down Syndrome and continues to contribute as a speaker and volunteer for the CDSS.

Riley McLean

Sixteen-year-old competitive swimmer Riley McLean attends high school in Vernon, British Columbia. In addition to the demands of training and competing, he skateboards, is learning to sail, has his learner’s driving permit and spends time with school and Church friends.

Being born with arthrogryposis, a congenital condition that restricts the use of his joints (except for his hips and spinal column), hasn’t prevented McLean from pursuing whatever interests him. Without functioning elbows and knees, which cannot bend, he develops adaptive and creative approaches to everyday activities, including athletic pursuits. McLean says, “If there’s an obstacle, I find a way around it.”

McLean has competed in local, national and international events, including the 2015 Toronto Parapan Am Games. “Whenever I feel nervous or tired before a race,” he says, “I pray that I’ll have the energy and strength to be mentally strong to complete my race.”

With the help of senior-level swim coach Renate Terpstra and the support of his parents, Keith and Odette, McLean is rapidly gaining the attention of the para-swimming world. In November 2016, he captured five gold medals in the Can-Am Open in Miami, Florida, and hopes to qualify for the 2020 Tokyo Paralympic Games.

McLean was also among the recipients of the 2015 Premier’s Awards for Aboriginal Youth Excellence in Sport, which recognizes the best and brightest young aboriginal athletes in British Columbia for achieving excellence in both their personal lives and chosen sports.

Joshua Sloan

Joshua Sloan of Surrey, British Columbia, has participated in multiple sports disciplines, but running remains his passion. His performance times in the 2016 trials for the upcoming Special Olympics qualified him for participation at more competitive levels. Because he chooses not to compete in events held on Sunday, Sloan has opted to compete recreationally, still maintaining his love and enthusiasm for running. Born with Down syndrome, Sloan explains, “I love running because of the energy and good feeling it gives me.”

With the support of his parents, Jim and Lynn, Sloan has competed in the annual Special Olympics B.C. event since 2006, except for a two-year period (2013–2015) during which he served a full-time mission for the Church. Because he was assigned to the Canada Vancouver Mission, his schedule was adapted so he could return to his family home each night while maintaining the disciplined habits expected of every Mormon missionary.

While he still looks forward to participating as a Special Olympics athlete, 22-year-old Sloan has set his sights on a career as a professional chef. He currently works in the production kitchen of a local food company.

Of his life and experience, Sloan says, “I’m really happy with my life. I have lots to do and improve on, and I have a choice to do what I want to do.”

Contributed by Kathleen Begieneman Carter

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