Iris Hardie cheers for her son, Victor Williams, could be heard over the loud buzzer as she watched him skate across the ice chasing the puck.
It seemed like it was easy for Williams to navigate his way through the players, but it wasn’t always that way.
He is a special needs athlete.
“It’s hard to watch him on the ice and remember that,” Hardie said.
Williams is on the autism spectrum and struggles with interacting with other people and an oversensitivity to sound and touch.
“For whatever reason, being on the ice works for him,” Hardie said.
For other special needs individuals like Williams, hockey is a way for them to overcome their developmental disabilities.
That is why the 6th Annual UCT (United Commercial Travelers) Winter Festival is held every year for people with special needs.
“Our organization is made to be a therapeutic organization in a competitive environment,” said Dave Chase, the executive director and president of Snap Sports in Valencia, the organization that partnered with UCT to put on the annual event at Ice Station Valencia.
Approximately 160 athletes from 11 different organizations around the United States participated in the festival, ranging from the ages of 10 to 34.
The event kicked off with an opening ceremony on Friday and will finish with a closing ceremony Sunday evening, where athletes will receive medals but no competitive awards to keep true to the therapeutic environment.
“We teach life lessons through team sports,” Chase said. “By using ice hockey to do that, we feel like we can develop special needs athletes to a level of independence that they have never had before.”
Melissa Schaab is from Maryland, but jumped on the opportunity to take her daughter Ann Schaab, who is diagnosed with Down syndrome, to the festival.
“Our kids don’t get a lot of game opportunities,” Melissa Schaab said.
“It’s fun for me to watch her be engaged in something that she loves to do.”
“They’ve always been special for a different reason and now they’re special because they’re hockey players,” Chase said.