By Chad Ouellette
Ottawa-born Special Olympics figure skater Michael Raytchev will be going it alone at the Canada Winter Games as Team Ontario’s only shot to medal in the men’s category of his event.
Raytchev cemented himself a spot at the upcoming Games after an impressive performance last April in a regional competition in Arnprior. He’ll be travelling to Red Deer with head coach Cathy Skinner and his fellow athletes from Feb. 23 to March 3.
Skinner, who won the Ottawa Sports Awards lifetime achievement award in 2017 for her more than 35 years that she’s volunteered in sport, said that Raytchev only just learned about how significant the Games are.
“Up until he was named to the Canada Winter Games, he didn’t realize how important it was,” Skinner said. “After the training camps and him receiving his jersey, it finally settled in that he is doing something great.”
Skinner has been alongside Raytchev since he enrolled in the Special Olympics program at the Goulbourn Skating Club six years ago.
She’s seen first-hand how figure skating has helped Raytchev, who is autistic, off the ice.
“It’s not just figure skating, it’s everything involved with figure skating, is helping him with life skills, independence and so forth,” she said.
Though Raytchev speaks minimally, his calm demeanour on the ice allows him to express himself with elegance. Skinner says she’s astonished by how much he’s grown since they first met.
At the beginning of February, his hard work and dedication paid off after finishing 1st in the Level 2 men’s singles event at the Special Olympics Ontario Winter Games in Sault Ste. Marie. Immediately after, they left for another Special Olympics event in Toronto.
The night before, Skinner asked him if he remembered fellow Goulbourn Skating Club athletes Jack Fan and Katie Xu bringing their medals to show up-and-coming athletes.
“He said ‘yeah,’” says Cathy. “And I said why do you think I want you to bring (medals) to (Toronto) and he said ‘to inspire them,’ – my gosh it was incredible.”
Raytchev’s victory at the Ontario Winter Games moves him closer to qualifying for the Special Olympics World Winter Games in 2021.
The skater and his father, Mikhail Raytchev, explained to the Ottawa Sportspage in an interview why figure skating is Michael’s go-to outlet.
“We were trying to improve Michael’s condition of autism,” Mikhail said. “This was the primary objective to get involved in figure skating. We did a lot of research and we found that figure skating can have major benefits not only for everybody, but for him.”
He explained that it’s a great way to be social with other kids and that it builds confidence and also helps engage the auditory parts of his son’s brain.
“You see their involvement, their joy and happiness,” says Mikhail. “When they do something like figure skating and other sports, it’s incredible for those kids, they show pride in what they’re doing. Even if they don’t win a medal, it’s prideful to just be there.”
While Fan, a multi-medal winner at the 2017 Special Olympics Winter World Games, inspired Raytchev to want to be in the sport and improve himself, his father said that Michael is no doing the same; he’s trying to inspire new kids who want to follow in the same path.