B.C. powerlifter inspires documentary and hometown affection — but remains humble


A Clearwater, B.C., man’s trip to the Special Olympics World Games in Berlin has garnered him the praise and love of his small town — along with an upcoming documentary film.

Ryan Kealey lives with autism and has practised powerlifting for over eight years, training with his coach Jordan Sarneggia twice a week in nearby Kamloops, B.C.

After winning the Canadian Powerlifting Union’s Special Olympics category in February, Kealey qualified for the World Games in Berlin in late June — the showpiece sporting event held for those with intellectual disabilities.

The 27-year-old had to overcome being in an unfamiliar environment away from Canada, as well as being on an international stage in front of a massive audience without his primary caregiver, his mother.

Kealey went on to win three silver medals and one gold at Berlin, while a documentary crew was following him. When he returned to Canada, his town held a reception for him that saw dozens of people turn up.

And while his story is seen as an inspiration by many in the small B.C. Interior town of around 2,400 people, Kealey himself is not doing things any differently.

Dozens of people turned up to honour Kealey’s achievements at a Clearwater event following the Special Olympics World Games. (Indigo Thyme Imagery)

“No, I don’t think it would change me at all,” he told CBC News with a laugh. “I’m not letting those things get to my head and fill it with arrogance.

“We all know how arrogance went. It always loses in the end.”

Those closest to him say Kealey’s humility underlies a determination to make his dreams come true.

A man displays a thumbs up while hugging a woman with a red t-shirt.
Kealey hugs his mother Grace after winning gold at the Special Olympics World Games in Berlin. His mother and family wore red T-shirts featuring Ryan and the words, ‘Our superhero.’ (Submitted by Ken Matheson)

Felt like Hercules

Kealey was accompanied in Germany by his mother, aunt and her husband — all of whom were wearing matching red T-shirts with a picture of Kealey and the text, “Our superhero.”

Kealey is a big fan of superheroes himself, and says he got into powerlifting as a way to protect others who can’t defend themselves.

In an interview with ESPN shortly after his momentous gold, Kealey was asked which superhero he felt like in the moment.

A group of people wear red shirts with a man's face on it, and the words "Our Superhero."
Ryan’s family, along with the documentary crew from Canada, wore matching shirts to celebrate his accomplishments at the Special Olympics World Games in Berlin. (Submitted by Ken Matheson)

“I guess it’s Hercules. Because, you know, he felt like a freak,” he said. “He felt like he was different from all others, which I understand because I have autism. I had that feeling my whole life.”

Kealey went on to encourage the viewers to “be a superhero and achieve whatever gifts you want to achieve.”

A number of athletes wearing red jackets wave while in a large stadium.
Athletes from Canada arrive at the Olympiastadion during the opening ceremony of the Special Olympics World Games Berlin 2023. (Christoph Soeder/dpa via AP)

That interview led to international attention for the 27-year-old, especially after TSN broadcast his medal-winning lift on Instagram.

“I’m just not used to it because I’m not used to people [seeing] me like a star,” Kealey told CBC News. “I’m so used to being like, I guess, a ninja in the shadows.”

‘Love conquers all’

Grace Kealey, Ryan’s mother, said the Berlin games were a culmination of years of work for her son, and that his mindset and achievements showed that “love conquers all.”

“I feel that that’s the biggest message, that’s the biggest inspiration,” she said. “It’s simple, it’s humble, it’s … what we truly are really needing at this time.

“I’m very proud, beyond proud and honoured and humbled to be a part of that in whatever form.”

A white woman wearing a butterfly-wing necklace and a red t-shirt smiles in a crowd.
Grace Kealey says she’s proud to be Ryan’s sidekick in his rise to Special Olympics gold, while her son dubbed her the Merlin to his Arthur. (Submitted by Ken Matheson)

Ken Matheson, a District of Clearwater councillor, is the documentarian that followed Ryan’s journey to Berlin. 

Matheson told CBC News that going to the Special Olympics and seeing thousands of athletes perform, often with a united front despite being from different countries, was “transformational.”

He said he heard about Ryan’s story about a month before he left for the games, and that he was very grateful to Ryan and Grace for trusting him with the story.

“I saw [Kealey] as being somebody that’s absolutely so inspirational, but he is so humble … I don’t think he really sees it,” he said. “It just comes to him naturally.”

A man holds up a red framed maple leaf, with three medals on it and messages of appreciation.
Kealey was recognized with a tribute in his town of Clearwater, B.C. (Indigo Thyme Imagery)

After successfully crowdfunding the documentary, dubbed Beyond the Weights, Matheson is now actively working on the film — hoping to find a distributor and release it within the next few years. 

As for the man at the centre of it all, his future plans are not nearly as grandiose.

A man wearing grey speaks to a camera while lights and cameras surround him.
Kealey’s story will be told in a documentary called Beyond the Weights, which is being directed by Ken Matheson and was successfully crowdfunded in the month before he left for Berlin. (Indigo Thyme Imagery)

Kealey says he plans to take up parkour to keep himself active during the winter, and then continue his karate lessons — he holds a green belt — in the spring. 

He added that he plans to continue powerlifting and hopes to compete in the next Special Olympics World Games.

“I just like to keep doing it for the fun of it, like, for the fun of getting stronger and better, and if they want to be inspired, that’s their choice,” he said.

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