Amid all the excitement of the first major international event of the 2019 ICF canoe season were two very important races that signaled a major milestone for the sport of canoe sprint.

For the first time ever, races were held for athletes with an intellectual disability. Two races were held at Poznan in Poland, with 17 athletes from Germany and the host nation taking part over the 200 metre course.

Kayaking has been on the program at the Special Olympics since 2003 in Ireland, but as Mariusz Damentko, the European Sports Director for the Special Olympics, pointed out, having the races as part of the ICF Canoe Sprint and Paracanoe World Cup in Poznan was a significant breakthrough.

“I’m delighted to see our Special Olympics athletes at a professional para-sport event,” he said.

“We have at least 17 partnerships with different sport organisations, like swimming and athletics, but not all of them let us do our demonstration races or matches.

“This is one of our goals, to promote people with intellectual disability, to show the mainstream population that they can do the same things which we can do.”

Mr Damentko was a special guest in Poznan for the demonstration races, and was thrilled with what he observed. He was also impressed with the involvement of two of the biggest names in canoeing in Poland and Germany, Izabela Dylewska and Sebastian Brendel.

Dylewska was Poland’s first ever Olympic canoeing medalist, and donated the boats for the athletes to use in Poznan Brendel, a three-time Olympic gold medalist, donated a brand new boat to one of the German athletes.

“I had seen these athletes training around my club, and I wanted to help out,” Brendel said.

“I love my sport of canoeing, and for me it is very important that we show it is accessible for everyone. If I can play a part in that, then I will.”

Mr Damentko said it is the involvement of people like Dylewska and Brendel who will help to lift the athletes and to encourage more people to give kayaking a go.

“This is our biggest goal. Inclusion,” Mr Damentko said.

“When the athletes play together with partners without intellectual disability in one team, but also through this kind of demonstration.

“Our athletes are observing all the mainstream championships and competitions, and they always dream to be part of it. They always dream to be admired by spectators.

“This was their dream to be in this place, so it absolutely upgrades their self-confidence and self-being.”

Mr Damentko said kayaking had developed into one of the more popular sports on the Special Olympics program, with more athletes joining every four years. He is hopeful athletes with an intellectual disability will have more opportunities to compete at mainstream events in the future.

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