Athletes feel like pros as they compete at Special Olympics Colorado Winter Games |

Athletes feel like pros as they compete at Special Olympics Colorado Winter Games

A skier maneuvers her way around a gate during the Special Olympics Colorado Winter Games at Copper Mountain Resort on Sunday, March 6.
Joel Wexler/For the Summit Daily News

Copper Mountain Resort is frequented with snowboarding and skiing competitions almost every single weekend as they serve as the hosts for Olympic medalists, Olympic-level talent and Team USA hopefuls. The constant competitions throughout the winter months is one reason why the resort has earned the moniker “The Athlete’s Mountain.”

On Sunday, March 6, the ski resort hosted perhaps some of the most dedicated and passionate group of athletes, the athletes of Special Olympics Colorado. The cold and nonstop snow showers did little to slow down the hundreds of athletes who came to compete all day.

Athletes bounded to the lift lines with excitement in their eyes and a sense of eagerness in their step as they were about to compete for medals where many of their inspirations frequent for training and competitions.

Special Olympic athletes had the opportunity to compete in one of four different events, including Alpine skiing, snowboarding, snowshoeing and cross-country skiing.

At the Alpine competition, it was clear that the athletes loved to not only ski, but race as well.

Many came to the starting area with smiles on their faces as they whispered personal affirmations to themselves like, “I can do this because I am strong,” “I am going to win a gold medal” and “I’ve got a fire in my belly and I am ready to go.”

Others let their nerves go by dancing to the music at the starter’s gate. Once past the start, the athletes cut left and right and hung to the gates down the race course.

After many of the competitors’ first runs were complete, event organizers announced that the program was going to be abbreviated because of the oncoming inclement weather.

The news dampened the spirits of some of the athletes who had been looking forward to the event for a year, but this disappointment was quickly replaced with glee as the athletes completed their final runs.

Among the teams and competitors was Summit County’s own Summit Tigers, coached by Kent Willis.

Kent Willis’ daughter, Caroline Willis, is a regular at the competition. She attended the games for over 15 years and has only missed two games while she was at college at Eastern New Mexico University.

“I have been skiing all my life … I started (skiing with the Special Olympics) in 2006 and now I enjoy it,” Caroline Willis said.

The Summit Tigers Special Olympic team stands atop the awards podium with their medals. Every member of the team won two medals each at the annual event. The athletes are, from left, Jessy Dorton, Gabe Duwaik, Erika Abbott, Caroline Willis, Raymond Guerrero and Summit Clark.
Anna Willis/Courtesy photo

Even though Caroline Willis cites her favorite sport as volleyball, which she played while in high school, she also said she looks up the most to Winter Olympians Shaun White and Mikaela Shiffrin.

“Shaun White wins gold in men’s halfpipe and Mikaela Shiffrin wins gold for giant slalom and slalom,” Caroline Willis said to why they inspire her. Like them, Caroline Willis has won gold medals of her own throughout the years at the Special Olympics Colorado Winter Games.

“I feel good when I win gold,” Caroline Willis said.

Caroline Willis hasn’t always been winning medals though. She didn’t win gold the first few years that she competed competed at the event, which Kent Willis said really frustrated her.

“She’s pretty competitive, she wants to win those gold medals,” Kent Willis said. “The first couple years when she wasn’t skiing that well yet, she didn’t get any medals and she was not a happy camper.”

However, over the next few years Caroline Willis worked hard, much like she has seen Shiffrin and White do after debilitating injuries and subpar competitions. Out on the slalom course, she said she often feels like she is Shiffrin working hard to make the very tight turns.

“I have to focus on my turns like Mikaela Shiffrin,” Caroline Willis said. “She is my favorite.”

Caroline Willis was able to improve her skiing in order to get to the level she wanted, and in a few years time she was not only a gold medalist but was regularly winning medals at competitions.

Willis has now won over 20 medals while competing with the Special Olympics.

“I think of my family members and I ski faster.” Caroline Willis said of what motivates her while skiing.

For the most part, the gates and courses that are set at Special Olympics Colorado Winter Games do not differ much from those that are set up at other high school, college and professional Alpine skiing competitions throughout the state.

“They are just like everybody else, they are just as competitive,” Kent Willis said. “Their times are slower, but they are just as competitive and that’s pretty cool.”

Out of the six Summit Tigers that competed at this year’s event, all of them walked away with two medals. Erika Abbott, Summit Clark, Jessy Dorton, Gabe Duwaik and Caroline Willis won silver and gold in two Alpine events, while Raymond Guerrero won gold in both Alpine events.

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