Special Olympics Colorado celebrates 29 seasons at Copper Mountain on March 5 | SummitDaily.com

Special Olympics Colorado celebrates 29 seasons at Copper Mountain on March 5

They've been training since January for this moment: race time.

On Sunday, more than 250 athletes and their partners with Special Olympics Colorado return to Copper Mountain Resort for the 29th edition of the Special Olympics Winter Games. The annual competition includes six events — slalom and giant slalom for skiers and snowboarders, plus cross-country skiing and snowshoeing — all held on eight custom courses for athletes of all abilities and ages.

For athletes from every corner of the state and New Mexico, this weekend is the reward for at least two months of training at Copper with an all-volunteer coaching staff. There have been bails, falls, crashes and near misses, but the chance to stand on top of the podium was worth it.

"The athletes are familiar with the slopes after all of that," said Susan Foege, director of competition for the Special Olympics Colorado offices in Denver. "This way, they don't show up to the state competition with no experience on a race course. They can work on their turns, pick their lines — that sort of thing — so they're on their game when they get here."

Competition gets underway at 10 a.m. with course inspection for giant slalom. Athletes and their partners take runs one after the other until lunchtime, when the GS and snowshoe awards are handed out, and then it's back to the racecourse for slalom until 2 or 3 p.m. The day ends with awards for slalom and cross-country, followed by a group ski-down for all participants and an after-dark fireworks show. It's a competition with winners and medals and ceremony, but Foege said it's much more than that for the athletes and their coaches.

"Alpine skiers and snowboarders are a close-knit group," Foege said of the Special Olympics crowd in the Rocky Mountains. "These athletes really get to know each other through that eight-week training program and that's not really typical for our other sports."

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Slopeside teamwork

If you've seen an Olympic ski race, you know exactly what to expect at the Special Olympics Winter Games. Skiers and snowboarders both compete on standard slalom and giant slalom courses, with different lengths for three different classes: novice, intermediate and advanced.

What you won't expect is the partner scoring. To win, athletes compete side by side with their partners — usually friends, family or coaches who help with training and more — for a combined time. The best combined time after two runs is crowned champion in the alpine ski and snowboard events.

"I hate to be biased because I'm a snowboarder, but I love the snowboarders," Foege said. "It's been slowly growing over the years and we have a few new athletes this year. It'll be fun to watch that keep growing."

Along with the alpine events, dozens of athletes also come to Copper for the cross-country skiing and snowshoeing races. They're not quite as popular as crashing gates, but when competitors range in age from 12 to 65 years old, Foege said the flatland events help keep everyone involved for years and years.

And they don't take it easy: distances range from 25 meters for snowshoe and 500 meters for cross-country ski to 5 kilometers and 10 kilometers.

"Our athletes are pushing themselves to do the long races," Foege said. "They're not taking the easy way out, and they're usually getting out there for races that are longer than even you or I would want to do. It takes dedication and training to get out there for that."

Training would never happen, though, if it weren't for a long and close relationship with Copper Mountain. Special Olympics Colorado has partnered with the resort for nearly three decades, along with other resorts like Eldora outside of Boulder and Sunlight near Glenwood Springs, and all three combine for a winter-long series of events. Athletes only get invited to the Copper Winter Games if they qualify earlier in the season at one of the other two host sites.

"Copper really welcomes us with open arms," Foege said. "They give us the same treatment as any other race they have, and they're so great to work with on the hills and behind the scenes."

After medals and accolades are given, it all comes down to one thing for Foege: seeing Special Olympics athletes fall in love with skiing or riding — and their fellow competitors — all over again.

"Everyone is supporting each other so that it's almost like they're on the same team," Foege said. "Of course everyone wants to come home with a gold medal, but the camaraderie is very special with this event."

2017 Special Olympics Winter Games

What: The 29th edition of a winter sports competition for Special Olympics Colorado athletes, featuring slalom and giant slalom for skiers and snowboarders

When: Sunday, March 5, at 10 a.m.

Where: Copper Mountain Resort

Cost: Free for spectators

All downhill events are held on the Copperopolis racecourse beneath Excelerator lift. All Nordic and snowshoe events are held on the Copper Nordic trails. Be aware of closures throughout the day. For more info on the Games and Special Olympics Colorado, see SpecialOlympicsCo.org.

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