When Kenneth (Kenny) Freeman started bowling, he said his biggest challenge was making friends. Twenty years later, with a community of close-knit coaches and teammates to cheer him on, he’s ready to take on his next challenge: competing at the Special Olympics Canada Winter Games in Thunder Bay, Ont., in February.
“At first, I never thought I was able to get to provincials, and then I heard from my mom that my team had made it through to nationals,” said Freeman. “I was like overly excited … I told my brother first ’cause I culdn’t wait. I had to take out my happiness.”
Freeman, 39, lives with Down syndrome. He moved into his own apartment in his early 20s with the support of Reena, a Jewish non-profit that provides semi-independent housing to special needs people in the Greater Toronto Area, and was introduced to bowling thanks to a Reena program offered in partnership with Special Olympics Ontario.
Before long, he was bowling twice a week – one day with Reena and one day with another group.
Two years ago, with decades of practice under his belt (or, rather, tucked away in his bowling shoes), coaches began taking notice of Freeman’s increasing scores, which indicated he could qualify for the provincial Special Olympics. They encouraged him to participate in the qualifier.
Margaret French was one such coach. She leads the Richmond Hill Strikers, a team Freeman joined in 2018. French said that the benefits of bowling are multifaceted, particularly for special needs bowlers. “Socially, some of them have improved immensely through these programs,” she said.
Freeman is a case in point. When telling the story of his bowling career, he speaks most frequently about the people he’s met – though he doesn’t forget to mention his medals, either. After qualifying, Freeman won bronze in individual competition and gold in team play at the 2019 provincial championships.
“When I got the last medal, I go up to my mom and I’m like, ‘here mom, look what I got,’ and it was like she had gone totally blank,” said Freeman. He noted that his victories are meaningful not only to him, but also to his family, who bowl together every year at the Striking for Reena fundraiser, where, he emphasized, he always beats his brothers.
As Freeman trains for the 2020 Special Olympics Canada Winter Games – which involves weekend-long training camps, healthy eating and workouts three times a week – his mom, Jo-Anne Ross-Freeman, said she remembers “years of sweat and tears.”
They raised Freeman using Reuven Feuerstein’s theory of structural cognitive modifiability, she explained, which originated in Israel as a means of accelerating the education of kids who grew up in concentration camps.
“One of the philosophies is that if you’re treated normally, you will act and behave normally, so we’ve always done that,” Ross-Freeman said. “But, you know, our society doesn’t always follow that principle.”
She has had to fight for Freeman to be integrated into regular programs and schools many times while he was growing up. In her eyes, the hard work paid off:
“To see how far he’s come since then is unbelievable. He’s a regular guy – he’s got a girlfriend, he’s got a job, he lives on his own with support, he goes the bank, he does his shopping, he does his cooking – he’s just awesome!”
But from Feb. 25 to 29, Freeman won’t just be a regular guy – he’ll be an Olympian.
To help sponsor Kenneth Freeman, visit team.specialolympicsontario.com/2019/09/04/kenneth-freeman.