James Walker is celebrating, having won three gold medals and one silver medal in powerlifting at the Special Olympics National Summer Games in Vancouver, B.C. The Book Store at Western employee, 28, is one of 11 powerlifting athletes from Team Ontario competing at the event this week.
Diagnosed with autism at an early age, it took Walker nearly a decade to speak. And in the 1990s, it was Mustangs Hockey men’s captain Mark Guy who taught him how.
At the age of 9, after meeting the men’s hockey team, Walker approached his dad. His first sentence? “Dad, skates put on now,” he said.
That day, Walker embraced hockey and the world of sports, something his family credits as a game-changer in his life. Today, Walker is an accomplished, well-rounded athlete and valued teammate at The Bookstore at Western, where he has worked for the past seven years. He is a social young man, who talks with confidence about anything and everything, but especially sports.
“It was (at Western) in 1994, that James, an 8-year-old boy who could barely speak, became friends with a few Western Mustangs hockey players and their coach. From that point on, James learned how to speak and how to read through the medium of sport,” said his dad, Rick Walker, a community co-chair for the Special Olympics in London.
“Twenty years later, James still maintains a close relationship with the Western hockey team and its coaches.”
Walker has been involved with Special Olympics since 2001 and plays soccer, softball, floor hockey and basketball in addition to his powerlifting. He has played ice hockey with the George Bray Sports Association for almost 20 years. In 2009, he joined the Team Canada floor hockey team, competing in the Special Olympics World Winter Games in Boise, Idaho. The team took home the silver medal.
“James started (at the bookstore) as a co-op student when he was in high school,” said his supervisor Darrin Barrow, adding at the time, Walker had two other jobs – working at Home Depot and at Wendy’s, as well as his schoolwork to focus on.
“In his first six months to a year here, he had a care person that would come in and check on him every couple of weeks. And he just progressed after that,” Barrow continued.
“He wasn’t as social then as he is now. He’s come right out of his shell. He’s progressed so much now that he’s living on his own.”
After not qualifying in powerlifting for the last games, Walker was determined, changing his diet and exercise regimen and sticking to it.
“Hopefully, I do well for the National Games and do my personal best record,” Walker said prior to leaving, noting he is excited and looking forward to attending and competing.
“My body is getting stronger and stronger since I joined powerlifting,” he added. His personal records right now are squats with 440 lbs., deadlifts with 495 lbs. and bench press with 220 lbs.
And Walker brings this kind of dedication to the workplace and to everything he does, Barrow added.
“He’s a great worker; everybody loves him. He’s part of the family and he’s just great to have on the team,” Barrow said.