Gabe McHughan – Athlete Extraordinaire
This Grade 8 student from Shelburne is a fierce athlete, who took home four medals from the 2023 World Dwarf Games held in Cologne, Germany.
Thirteen-year-old Gabe McHughan is a reflective guy who tends to pause for a beat and consider his words before he speaks. This seems to contradict the fact that he’s a fierce athlete, who took home four medals from the 2023 World Dwarf Games held in Cologne, Germany.
The World Dwarf Games are the largest international sporting event held exclusively for people with dwarfism. At the 2023 games, more than 500 athletes participated, representing 29 countries. The games are held every four years, though they were paused during the pandemic. Gabe first participated in the 2017 games, which took place at the University of Guelph. There, at age 7, he was the second-youngest athlete.
The games are not to be confused with the Paralympics. At the Paralympics, only a limited number of activities are open to athletes with dwarfism, while the World Dwarf Games offer about 13, a number that varies from competition to competition. And all the participants share the same trait. So, as Gabe’s mother, Crystal says, “It’s like the Olympics just for them.”
In Germany Gabe competed in badminton, basketball, boccia, soccer, swimming, track and field, table tennis and volleyball. He won bronze in basketball, boccia and soccer, and a silver in volleyball. Why so many different sports? Crystal says,
“Gabe said to me, ‘Why travel all that way and not take part in as much as I can?’”
The Grade 8 student at Glenbrook Elementary School in Shelburne says of all the different sports, soccer is his favourite. “I’ve been playing since I was three years old, so it’s like I’ve been practising my entire life.” His position is goalkeeper. Though Gabe’s school friends think he’s very athletic, he’s no slouch academically, with a particular interest in science and math. In off hours from school, his training includes soccer, badminton and volleyball.
Perhaps the most significant barrier to participation in the games is cost. Unlike in Australia, where athletes are government funded, or the United States, where athletes are funded by sponsors, no similar support system exists in Canada. Athletes with dwarfism are nearly entirely on their own.
Though the family did some fundraising, both on their own and through the Dwarf Athletic Association of Canada, by the time flights, accommodation, food, uniforms and entry fees were factored in, says Crystal, “Gabe and I going to Germany cost about $10,000. We couldn’t afford for his dad and sister to be there.” Crystal has been working behind the scenes to get more recognition and funding.
Right now, Gabe has his sights set on a Little People of America competition scheduled for next summer in Baltimore, Maryland, and beyond that, the 2027 World Dwarf Games, which will be held in Australia. He’s also interested in competing at the Paralympics, and says, “I already have some friends on the Paralympic team.” Longer term, he says, “I want to take on coaching.”
Many athletes claim the best part of sport is the friends and relationships they develop along the way, and Gabe is no different. “I’ve made friends from Yukon, B.C., Newfoundland, Europe, all over.”