Special Olympics athletes and volunteers find the greatest award of all
Special Olympics Winter Games–-Montana athletes are greeted with glad cheers from adoring fans wielding cowbells, clackers and kazoos, with songs like “Eye of the Tiger” blaring from giant speakers.
Many throw up their arms in celebration as they tear down the hill at Madison Base Area of Big Sky Resort on a powdery Monday, Feb. 25. The fastest and the slowest are greeted with the same level of encouragement and happiness.
Athletes compete in cross-country skiing, downhill skiing, snowboarding and snowshoeing and are paired with at least one volunteer each.
Taking the safety of the athletes into consideration, the advanced downhill course didn’t run in the afternoon with it being such a cold and windy day with low visibility. Still, Jeremy Brooks secured a first-place finish in advanced downhill skiing before the wind began howling and snow blowing.
“Today is a good day,” he said as he gave a high five and a hug while sporting a wide grin.
Volunteer Matt Murphy had helped Eagle Mount years ago and had friends volunteering who alerted him to the need of more assistance. He didn’t know what to expect, but the smile he found that morning didn’t leave his face all day. Perhaps that’s the biggest difference between this sporting event and others – everyone wins because everyone smiles.
It is a different way to enjoy a “pow day,” Murphy said. He’s becoming Facebook friends with Tony Cloyd, the athlete he assisted. Cloyd was nervous at the start of the competition with a kind of tense, “let’s just get this over with,” mentality. Murphy calmed him and asked that he just do a run and see how he felt after.
“Tony killed it,” Murphy said. He had a great time. They both did.
“I love the snow,” Cloyd told him. “Me, too, buddy,” Murphy replied.
The fellas fist bumped as they completed the course: their friendship secured by mutual love of speed and powder.
It’s because of numerous volunteers like Murphy that the event is able to take place. It takes a lot of people to make it work and many have returned year after year, some for over a decade.
There were 120 volunteers and over 70 athletes participating this year, organizer Jason Shellman said. He and his friend Sean Fitzgerald were passed the organizer torch around seven years ago and the event has been growing steadily every year. They work with nonprofit Eagle Mount to ensure all athletes have the adaptive equipment needed.
Jolene Porter has been volunteering for five years with Eagle Mount.
“We have an awesome group of people who teach our volunteers to keep our participants safe, happy, having fun and enjoying learning skiing,” she said.
Local volunteer Amanda Cox and her mother Beth have been volunteering with the Special Olympics Winter Games–Montana for years. It is one of their favorite events. They also say it is something the kids look forward to all year round.
Nine-year-old Adessa Summerford was amped-up and ready to compete days before the competition, partly due to the efforts of her teachers and friends at Longfellow Elementary School in Bozeman.
They made her a torch out of paper and had her carry it down hallways lined with cheering classmates holding signs of support. Her mother Sarah said it was almost emotionally overwhelming. She said most people don’t understand: all children are challenging, but a special needs child is 24/7. She often feels exhausted. This event and efforts from Longfellow School filled her cup, she explained, getting emotional.
“It’s good to have those reminders of the joy that she brings to all of our lives,” she said.
Mandy Patriarche, vice president of outreach for Special Olympics said she definitely found her dream job. She was exposed to the organization as a child, when she would go bowling with her uncle who has Down syndrome. Society is quick to tell these athletes that they are incapable of many things – winter sports and skiing particularly.
“Coming to these games and seeing them achieve these goals of things people told them they’d never be able to do is just amazing. I’ve always been inspired by our athletes, but to see our day-of volunteers instantly inspired just by meeting them, it’s just so cool to see how much it rubs off. It’s a real possibility that someone who’s gotten gold here could qualify to continue to world games,” she said. The Special Olympics Winter World Games take place in Sweden in 2021.
Qualifiers are placed in a lottery of sorts. If skill and luck are on their side, Special Olympics-Montana will pay for everything to send them “wherever they need to go and that includes training camps beforehand,” Patriarche said. “If they are chosen and they want to go, then we get them there.”
Amy Wittmen likes everything about skiing. “I just like to be around people and around cold,” she said.
Cole Cameron secured his first Special Olympics medal when he was two. He’s been skiing for three years, but this year was his first year competing with skiing.
His mom Shannon said she loves being around the kids.
“They’re so excited,” she said and also reflected on how supportive the parents are of one another. “Everyone is wanting to do good, but it’s not against someone else.”
Amanda Thom was surprised and overjoyed at her first-place finish in intermediate giant slalom. “I was determined to finish my skiing,” she said.
Jenny Lalich immediately put her fists in the air in a Rocky Balboa-esque pose of celebration as she charged to the stage for her third-place ribbon in snowshoeing.
“She’ll hug everybody in the whole place. She’s so proud,” her friend Felix Spinelli from Bozeman said.
Volunteers and athletes attest to the much-anticipated event being a day of good energy and unbridled joy. At the end of the competition and before the awards ceremony competitors and attendees were able to bust out their finest dance moves while toting their rainbow of ski jackets: some dosie-do, others booty dance, while one guy twirls in dizzying circles. The vibe is free; happy; accepting.
This year was eight-year-old Oliver Gregory’s first Special Olympics Winter Games.
“He’s super stoked. He’s a little ripper. He’s going to do well,” his dad Christopher predicted before the race. He was right. Oliver secured first place in boys giant slalom skiing in both the novice and intermediate categories.
“It’s time to get pizza,” Oliver told his mother Molly while proudly holding his ribbon.