John Robert “Jackie” Barrett, powerlifter, swimmer (born 25 April 1974 in Halifax, NS). Jackie Barrett is Canada’s most successful Special Olympics athlete. He won 22 gold medals at the Special Olympics Canada Games (20 in powerlifting, two in swimming) and 13 gold medals at the Special Olympics World Games. In 2015, the autistic Barrett broke three Special Olympics World Summer Games records. As a result, he became the first Special Olympian to be nominated for the Lou Marsh Trophy as Canada’s athlete of the year. He is also the first Special Olympian to be inducted into the Nova Scotia Sports Hall of Fame and Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame.
Jackie Barrett is the oldest of two children of Robert and Jeannee Barrett. Robert is a navy engineer and police officer, while Jeannee was a clerk and ammunition technician at CFB Shearwater in Nova Scotia.
At the age of four, Jackie spent a week of testing at the IWK Children’s Hospital in Halifax after Robert and Jeannee recognized that Jackie had some mental differences. After being tested by doctors, Robert and Jeannee were recommended to find an institution for Jackie. But after spending a significant time researching autism spectrum disorder (ASD), they rejected the medical advice and came to the conclusion that they would raise Jackie themselves. In their research, Robert and Jeannee found other families who were facing similar challenges with their children. “We learned that we weren’t alone and there was other people out there in the same boat,” Robert told CBC News in 2020. “Together we moved forward.”
Early Years in Sport
Jackie Barrett began his athletic career as a swimmer. He competed in his first Special Olympics in 1987 at the age of 13. In 1992, as a senior at J.L. Ilsley High School in Halifax, Jackie made the school’s football team and started powerlifting. Initially, Robert and Jeannee were reluctant to let their son play football, but they became supportive and believed a team environment would benefit Jackie’s social skills.
Saint Mary’s University
After graduating from high school in 1993, Barrett attended Saint Mary’s University in Halifax. On 11 May 1998, he graduated with a bachelor of commerce degree, with major in information technology. He also earned a programmer analyst and Internet solutions developer diploma from CDI College.
In 1994, Barrett won two gold medals in swimming at the Special Olympics Canada Summer Games in Halifax. During these same Games, Barrett attended the powerlifting competition. He was amazed by the sport and by the weights so many Special Olympians were lifting. Barrett’s swimming coach encouraged him to pursue powerlifting further. By 1995, he found a coach with weightlifting experience.
While attending Saint Mary’s University, Barrett did not have time for both swimming and powerlifting and needed to make a decision. In 1996, he decided to specialize in powerlifting. Even though he was new to powerlifting competitions in the mid-1990s, he had experience in the sport from lifting regularly in high school. At the age of 23, he became the youngest Canadian Special Olympian to deadlift 226.8 kg (500 lb).
Special Olympic Games
Barrett enjoyed extraordinary success at the Special Olympics. He won 33 medals at the Nova Scotia Special Olympic Games; 10 medals at the Newfoundland and Labrador Special Olympic Games; 25 medals (22 gold) at the Special Olympics Canada Games; and 15 medals (13 gold) at the Special Olympics World Games. In 2000 and 2015, Barrett won the Special Olympics Canada Male Athlete of the Year award.
Barrett was also the first Canadian Special Olympian to bench press 136 kg raw; to squat 226.8 kg, 249.5 kg, and 272.2 kg; and to deadlift 249.5 kg, 272.2 kg and 300 kg. At the 2015 Special Olympics World Games in Los Angeles, Barrett broke Special Olympics World Games records with a 297.5 kg deadlift, a 277.5 kg squat, and a triple combination score of 697.5 kg. His 277.5 kg squat also broke the mainstream Newfoundland Men’s Master-1 Super Heavyweight record.
The level of media attention paid to Barrett’s success in Los Angeles at the 2015 Special Olympics World Games was significant. Special Olympics Canada CEO Sharon Bollenbach said, “It was the first time I had ever seen a media scrum for a Special Olympics athlete.” In December 2015, Barrett became the first Special Olympics athlete to be nominated for the Lou Marsh Trophy as Canada’s athlete of the year.
When he was based in Nova Scotia, Barrett was nicknamed the “Halifax Hercules.” After moving to Newfoundland in 2008, he became known as the “Newfoundland Moose.”
Jeannee Barrett was very active in Special Olympics as a volunteer before dying from cancer at the age of 60 in 2014. Upon winning his gold medal in Los Angeles, in an emotional embrace, Robert gave Jackie a miniature urn, which contained his mom’s ashes.
In addition to competing in powerlifting and swimming, Barrett also started participating in five-pin bowling at the Special Olympics in 2008. In all, he was a Special Olympian for 28 years before retiring from competitive sports in 2015.
Since retiring, Barrett has remained active in Special Olympics in Newfoundland. He mentors powerlifters and volunteers his time at the Corner Brook Special Olympics Club. One of the athletes Barrett mentors is Daniel Moores of Corner Brook, who won two gold medals for Newfoundland at the 2018 Special Olympics Canada Summer Games in Antigonish, Nova Scotia.
In 2015, Barrett won the Dr. Frank Hayden Athlete Lifetime Achievement Award from Special Olympics Canada. (See also In Conversation with Dr. Frank Hayden.) In addition to being the first Special Olympian to be nominated for the Lou Marsh Trophy, Barrett is also the first Special Olympian to be inducted into the Nova Scotia Sports Hall of Fame (2019) and into Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame (2021).