Achieving Greatness: Special Olympics coach Renée Stewart’s incredible impact on athletes with intellectual disabilities

  • December 12, 2023

CAO’s Empowering Stories from Behind the Bench article series – December 2023

I’m truly blessed to be able to help athletes faced with challenges.

By David Grossman


Just mentioning the word, and the simple pleasure of exceptional feelings that often follows and leads to a sense of purpose, can have a powerful effect on the life of a person.

Renée Stewart knows. Better yet, she has that marvelous gift of inspiration and confidence that includes making people feel wonderful.

She’s also never given up on hope.

In fact, every day Stewart reinforces her own personal behaviour therapy in dealing with the dynamics of life’s challenges. For her, it’s about changing the way people look at things and also providing positive energy to enrich their lives.

If you’ve never met Stewart, you’re missing out on a charismatic and energetic individual who has devoted a remarkable 50 years to the world of coaching. It may be in sports, but it encompasses so much more. Lots of volunteering with the intention of bringing pleasure to people with intellectual disabilities.

Born Renee Weiler in Toronto, her mother was a former Canadian gymnastics champion. Her uncle was the recipient of the Order of Canada. But for Stewart, now 65 years of age and living with her husband, Mike, in Arnprior, a picturesque community about one hour west of Ottawa, she’s not big on the spotlight of personal gratification.

Her award, for the past five decades, is using her vigorous experience and dedication to make others better – and, in some cases, it hasn’t been easy.

“I love sports, it has been part of my life,” said Stewart, who many would say is a multi-gold medal recipient when it relates to training, counselling, and developing skills that enhance performance and confidence.

“(Coaching) has been a life-long fascination for me and the pride and joy – and the greatest pleasure, is coaching Special Olympians. Mentoring and instructing are both memorable experiences for me – and so much more enjoyable when I see a person achieve something that many thought was not possible.”

The Coaching Association of Ontario series “Empowering Stories from Behind the Bench” shines the spotlight on individuals, like Stewart, with strong coaching fundamentals and dedicating their time to help people often reach what may have seemed to be unbelievable goals.

As a youngster, she moved with her family several times. That’s because her father was in the Canadian Armed Forces and stationed in Alliston, then off to Germany, back to Calgary and finally, Kingston.

Also referred as the “Limestone City” because it has many heritage buildings constructed using local limestone, Kingston is where she attended LaSalle High School and was a multi-sport participant and winner of the prestigious Athlete of the Year award. LaSalle is also where she began to enhance her coaching experience in different sports at the intramural level.

Rather than pursuing post-secondary education, she opted for a retail sales job in a local mall.

One thing remained crystal clear, her desire to help others.

Whether it was operating a daycare for 36 years, helping others in palliative care, or coaching individuals whose ability to learn at an expected level and function in daily life was hampered, Stewart has always made herself available. She’s also organized functions in memory of her daughter, Caitlin, who died in a car accident in 1998.

“I thoroughly love what I do – helping people,” said Stewart, a wife, mother of three and someone who tries to walk between eight and 12 kilometres each day with her dog, Stella. “I just can’t imagine not being busy.”

Stewart was a gymnast, participated in club competitions and had hopes of competing in the 1976 Olympics in Montreal. She made a personal decision to pass on it after tiring of constant training.

She then made a major decision and transitioned from athlete to coach and began to coach many different sports at the intramural level at.

“I wanted to help and teaching someone to get better at what they were doing, and it brought smiles to them and me,” said Stewart, who has credentials gained through the National Coaching Certification Program (NCCP).

Her lust for coaching started at the age of eight. It came while observing her parents, guiding others during countless gymnastics competitions. Coaching took off when she taught a six-year-old with special needs how to swim.

Focused, confident and determined to continue her magic, Stewart exhibits a contagious enthusiasm that skyrockets – especially after she shares one success story after another. Those great moments coaching Special Olympics includes numerous memorable times in the gym.

There were many including the time Scottie, one of her athletes, launched a basketball through the net. It weas something he had tried to accomplish for two years.

“What a moment that was,” she recalled. “How can you not give these individuals a chance – they are people. They need us, and I need them.”

With unlimited encouragement, Stewart has been with Special Olympics for an astounding 24 years and has many stories of athlete success.
“Doug and Scott were competing for Arnprior at a track meet in Ottawa,” recalled Stewart. “During the 100-metre race, Scott had fallen. Doug stopped running to help him up so they could both go on to finish. I remember being so emotional and so proud of the two.”

Stewart has not escaped accolades.

In 2023, she was the recipient of a Petro Canada Coaching Excellence Award from the Coaches Association of Canada. As well, Stewart was honored with the Coach of the Year award from Special Olympics Ontario. The Township of Arnprior also presented her with the Volunteer of the Year award in 2017.

“I’m truly blessed to be able to help athletes faced with challenges,” she said. “There is so much mutual respect, watching the daily accomplishments. My biggest award is being there to help them achieve success.”


David Grossman is a veteran multi award-winning Journalist and Broadcaster with some of Canada’s major media, including the Toronto Star and SPORTSNET 590 THE FAN, and a Public Relations professional for 45+ years in Canadian sports and Government relations.

(Coaching) has been a life-long fascination for me and the pride and joy – and the greatest pleasure, is coaching Special Olympians.”