KILLINGTON — For Rutland’s special olympians, there’s always something new to learn.
Last Monday marked the first day of events for the Special Olympics Winter Games at Pico Mountain Ski Resort. Opening ceremonies were held the day before, and organizers expected approximately 350 people, about 200 of them athletes, to be on the mountain.
“There’s always a new technique to learn,” said Christopher Mitchell, an advanced alpine snowboarder and member of the Rutland Eagles’ Special Olympics delegation. “This year I’m trying to ride with the other foot forward. I usually ride with my right foot forward, this year I’m practicing with my left foot forward.”
An athlete since he was 8, Mitchell said being involved with sports is a good way to get out of the house.
While Mitchell is learning new snowboarding techniques, Taylor Landon is learning the sport of snowboarding itself.
“I skied for many years,” he said. “This is the first one I’ve learned to snowboard, too.”
Landon has been a skier since 2002 and wanted a new challenge.
“I like sports, I like to go fast. It feels great,” he said. “The hard part, for me, with snowboarding, was after many years of skiing, was slowing down long enough to learn to snowboard. I like to go fast. Once I really get the hang of snowboarding I can be just as fast as Chris (Mitchell) here.”
Devin Hemingway said he’s been cross-country skiing for a while, and only this year picked up alpine skiing.
“My friend, Taylor (Landon) was doing it, so I wanted to do it,” he said, adding that he was nervous at first, but is getting the hang of it.
Also applying her skills to new things was Missy Siner Shea, Vermont Special Olympics’ president and chief executive officer, who officially started in her new role one week before the event. Shea was formerly the executive director of the alumnae association at Wellesley College.
“Which is a really nice fit,” she said, “because I’m a Vermonter, I have a background in education, and sports and coaching, specifically in the ski industry, so it’s really nice Winter Games was my first thing.”
Shea, who grew up in the Mad River Valley, said she did a lot of work with inclusion in her former role, and is eager to carry that into her new job. She said Special Olympics helps everyone involved, whether they have intellectual disabilities or not.
“The reason I think our volunteers are so dedicated and passionate is because the benefit of doing this experience and getting to see the direct impact, you see that smile when an athlete crosses the finish line, when an athlete is rewarded with a medal, and you get to feel a part of that,” she said.
Volunteers would agree.
Karen Nawn-Fahey, a math teacher at Rutland High School, said it’s no surprise to her that 80 Rutland students volunteered to help at the Winter Games this year.
Among them was Francie Ettori, a Rutland High School senior and athlete.
Rutland High School was recently named a “Banner School” by Special Olympics and ESPN for its Unified Sports program, which puts athletes with and without intellectual disabilities on teams together.
“The reason I volunteered was because of the bright attitude and happiness they bring everyday,” Ettori said, speaking of those involved with the Unified Sports program.
“I’ve had kids with disabilities in my class since kindergarten, I’ve always been able to connect with them,” said Garrett Davine, a volunteer from Rutland High School. “It’s fun to help them with their achievements through Special Olympics.”
Shea said Special Olympics has a robust pool of volunteers and is grateful for them, given the busy nature of people’s lives.
“This isn’t just an organization for people who have family members or friends who have an intellectual disability, this is an opportunity to really have a wonderful, positive common goal and experience around that goal,” said Shea.