Photo by Jana Bounds

A joyful reunion and competition


It is an epic reunion – a celebration of snow and friendship. High fives, thumbs-ups, squeals of happiness, name chanting and so much cowbell, grace this gathering of extreme athletes at the 2020 Area Winter Games. The eleventh year of this Special Olympics Montana competition is a time of near-constant grinning and pure joy.

The competition hosted 75 athletes who competed in alpine downhill skiing, cross country skiing and snowshoeing. It was made possible by Big Sky Resort, Eagle Mount and an assortment of 115 local and regional volunteers, including MC Missy O’Malley, who, along with longtime organizer Sean Fitzgerald, has been involved for the last 11 years.

Notable for this year was the presence of Montana Highway Patrol Trooper Tyler Brant who helped hand-out ribbons to the athletes.

“You saw the athletes coming up to shake his hand. They were in awe of him. That was really cool to have him here,” O’Malley said.

Many of the athletes have returned year after year and friendships with other racers and volunteers have developed. Some gave speeches when they accepted their ribbons.

“I know the conditions were less than good,” athlete Jeremy Brooks said while addressing the crowd and sporting his orange Home Depot ski gear. He then congratulated all athletes saying everyone did a good job.

Good-natured razzing is standard between these competitors and longtime friends.

“There’s Jeremy Brooks! Mister smiley! Mister giggles!,” Amy DeBernardis who also ski raced said while giving Brooks a smile and a high five.

Brooks has a remarkable memory for people – first and last names. He gives out hugs, thumbs-up signs and fist bumps as he works through the room. “Every day is a good day!,” he said when he returned to his seat, noting that the racecourse is his favorite part of Big Sky.

DeBernardis, who also placed said seeing people and having fun made it a great day. Skylehr Stiles – who is famous for “ferocious high fives” – did not make it to Special Olympics Montana last year. It is safe to say he was missed, because the crowd went wild when he accepted his ribbon.

Ruth Spinelli not only placed in the competition, but also wrote a book about Special Olympics, soon to be available on Amazon.

Remy Lee Eichenwald is known for dominating on the slopes as well as on the dance floor. As music played from loud speakers outside and most attendees gathered in the Headwaters Grille at Madison Base due to the cold temperatures, Lee Eichenwald tirelessly danced the day away. There was an assortment of lontime volunteers and people new to the event.

Jackie Robinson was thrilled she was able to volunteer for the first time this year.

“My skier was a ripper – a really good skier! We had a great day,” she said.

Eagle Mount’s Patrick Quinn was partnered with skier Adessa Summerford and said she just flew through gates.

“The speeches today – on point,” he said.

As snow flew outside and the temperature and visibility dropped, people packed into the Headwater’s Grille for the cheerful awards ceremony.

“Everybody killed it today. You guys did amazing!,” MC Missy O’Malley said in the microphone and the crowd erupted into shouts of joy.
In later conversation, she admitted that for all the years she has volunteered at the event she has cried countless tears.

“These guys, they are more excited when their friends win than themselves,” she said.

She explained that it is the friendship between athletes and the genuine support they have for one another that makes the experience beautiful.

The sense of camaraderie is also adaptive sports director at Eagle Mount Vasu Sojitra’s favorite part of the event.

“Everyone is just stoked about everyone else,” he said.

Bozeman Schools coordinator for Special Olympics Joey Hancock said they keep coming back because more and more of their skiers want to ski competitively. Jackson Hole and NASTAR
are on the docket for some Bozeman athletes.

The Big Sky event keeps getting better and better each year, he said.

“They grow it and make
it more efficient. The support from the mountain community is awesome,” he said. “It pulls a lot of people together. I just love that it always brings out the best in people.”

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