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Monique Shah: Bradford's Special Olympic Athlete of the Year on diversity, inclusion in sports (5 photos)

For Black Bradford Special Olympic athlete Monique Shah, Black History Month isn't something that should only be celebrated one month of the year, but every day

Bradford athlete Monique Shah was recently featured on the Special Olympics Canada website for Black History Month. For the month of February, the organization is recognizing Black athletes fighting for inclusion and diversity in sports. 

Monique, 40, has been with Special Olympics for the past 23 years in bowling, bocce, curling, athletics and snowshoeing, and was recently named Special Olympics Canada’s 2020 Athlete of the Year. 

She and her family have been living in Bradford since 2007. 

When she was just two years old she started experiencing seizures and was diagnosed with brain damage, impairing her ability to walk and talk.

"She had a lot of issues," said her mother June Shah.

June remembers doctors telling her and her husband O'Keefe that Monique would never amount to anything and recommended Monique be put in a home where she could receive proper care. 

June sacrificed her career to stay home and care for her daughter while taking her to therapy programs. 

When Monique was a teenager, a job transfer for O'Keefe had the family move to Texas where Monique first got involved with Special Olympics. 

It was Monique's physical education teacher at school who recommended June put Monique into sports as a form of therapy. 

"And she took off from there," said June. 

Monique was a shy, quiet girl and sports allowed her to come out of her shell. 

One of Monique's biggest challenges is her retention and motor skills, which June said improved immensely as Monique did any form of physical activity.

"Skills that are easy to other people, it takes these kids awhile," explained June.  "We discovered through activity she would thrive."

June said it is especially important for individuals with disabilities to keep active. 

"It's important for their mental well-being," said June, "without it I don't know who or what she (Monique) would have been."

Monique loved the world of sports and was an active participant in track and field, soccer, baseball, basketball, volleyball and snowshoeing. 

She was determined and dedicated which earned her a lot of attention from coaches and teachers and was eventually introduced to Special Olympics coach Cathy Schreiber. 

After a few years in the U.S., the family moved back to Canada in 2003 where Monique continued to work with the Ontario Special Olympics at York University. Just before returning to Canada, she represented Team U.S.A. at the Special Olympics World Games in Ireland for soccer. 

Monique has won numerous Gold medals in relay races and high jump. She also competed in international competitions including the 2010 Special Olympics National Summer Games and the 2011 Special Olympics World Summer Games in Greece, taking home more trophies and medals than she can count. 

"My favourite sport is track," said Monique. "In the winter I love snowshoeing."

Her last big competition was a year ago at the 2020 Special Olympics Canada Winter Games in Thunder Bay.

Since then, she has been trying to keep busy throughout the pandemic, working out virtually at home and outside. 

"I exercise in my basement," said Monique. Special Olympics has set up multiple virtual programs to keep their athletes busy. 

Monique says it has been hard not seeing her friends in-person over the past year but continues to meet with them online each week to catch up. 

"I am hanging in there, we will get through this (pandemic) and just have to wait to go back, and just keep training outside," said Monique.  

Most recently, she took part in the 2021 motionball In-Home Gala, hosted by CityTV's Devo Brown. motionball is a national non-profit empowering young Canadians to be leaders in their communities, raising funds and awareness for Special Olympics through integrated social and sporting events. 

As part of her role with Special Olympics Canada, Monique helps to recruit new athletes and promote Special Olympics. She is also an avid volunteer at Bradford Valley Care Community long-term care facility and has been for over 10 years (but is currently on hiatus due to COVID). 

"She was (feeling) down for a week or two because she couldn't understand why she couldn't go," explained June about Monique's disappointment when learning she could no longer volunteer due to COVID. 

Every year, Monique takes part in the Olympic Torch Run in Bradford with South Simcoe Police. 

This year's Special Olympics World Winter Games in Sweden had to be cancelled due to the pandemic, but Monique is hoping to compete at next year's Special Olympics World Winter Games in Russia.

As a Black woman in sports, Monique is proud to be a role model for the younger generation in the community. She believes Black people should be celebrated every day, rather than just one specific month of the year. 

"It took us so long to explain about Black History Month to Monique because she doesn't see that, she doesn't see colour, she doesn't see race, she just sees people period," explained June, noting Monique's intellectual disability prevents her from discriminating against others. "This is not just Monique, but a lot of women like Monique, they embrace all."

"These are remarkable young men and women and if the world could take a page out of their book, the world would be a better place," said June.