Antonio Olivero: There’s no sporting spirit like the spirit of a Special Olympian
COPPER MOUNTAIN RESORT — Living in a ski town 1,900 miles from where you grew up, it’s not often you’re blessed with an experience that reminds you of home. Sunday at Copper Mountain Resort was one of those days.
Fellow locals Ernesto Blanco, Caroline Willis and Summit Clark are three of the eight Special Olympians who raced for the Summit Tigers at last weekend’s Colorado Special Olympics State Winter Games at Copper. The Tigers and hundreds of other Special Olympians from around the state braved Sunday’s powder conditions to race with their friends.
A chairlift ride with young Summit, 12, was just the experience I needed to put life back into perspective.
I arrived Sunday just in time to join Summit and Tigers volunteer Diane Mikulis for a ride up the American Flyer bubble chair. As skiers and riders negotiated packed-powder bumps below us, I asked Summit about the most important part of winning a silver medal in super-G the day before.
“So the key is to just go as fast as you can,” Summit said. “And try to get a good place.”
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It’s as simple as that for Summit and the rest of the Special Olympians: Go fast and try your best. As we rode up the chair, I joked with Summit that they named the county after him and that after his silver medal the day before, Silverthorne also was named in honor of him. Summit’s wide smile under his adorable glasses reminded me of the kind of smile I’d see as a kid when we’d go watch my cousin Chris compete in Special Olympics back in New York.
Chris never skied at Special Olympics, though he did once make the trek up to Lake Placid, New York, to watch sports like skating on the famous 1980 Olympic ice. Forty years to the day after the “Miracle on Ice” took place in that New York mountain town in which I used to live, Summit and the rest of the Tigers Special Olympians cultivated in me the same it’s-OK-to-believe-in-miracles spirit that Chris has always reminded me to remember, whether he be at Special Olympics or fighting a winning battle against acute myeloid leukemia.
Chris’ life, like so many of the Summit Tigers’ Special Olympians, has included one miracle after another. After all, you’re talking about a man who’s grown to 46 years old — still competing in Special Olympics — long after he was born with Down syndrome and doctors told my aunt and uncle not to take him home. They were told the nuns would take care of him for now, as he wouldn’t make his first birthday.
Special Olympians like Summit and their families have faced doubt like that often in their lives, as well. But what I’ve learned at Special Olympics from New York to Colorado is that there is no spirit like the spirit of a Special Olympian. Summit reminded me of that after we hopped off the top of the Flyer and skied down to the slalom course. As I followed him down the mountain and chatted with him, each question I asked had the same response.
“You betcha,” he said as he confidently turned around moguls.
Back in the Copper Mountain ballroom with the Tigers, I chatted with Ernesto. I learned Ernesto, a gold medalist the day prior, was a neighbor of mine in Dillon Valley. As I chatted with Ernesto, another Tiger, Vital LaRoque, tapped me on the shoulder. I turned to find Vital smiling, as the 37-year-old kid–at-heart shared his own Special Olympics story.
When we wrapped up chatting, he lifted his head to look at the ceiling as he smiled, raising his palms to his chin in the same way Chris always has when gleeful as can be. Vital also reminded me of one of Chris’ old Special Olympics pals Ben, who would ask “how are the babies,” referring to my twin sister and I, who he first met at a Special Olympics before we can remember.
Before I departed Sunday, I met head coach Kent Willis’ daughter Caroline. Her smile never fading, Caroline shared the same key when I asked her what was behind her bronze medal in giant slalom: “Go fast.”
Along with going fast and helping her teammates up after they’d fallen, what was Caroline’s favorite part of the weekend?
“Probably dancing,” she said.
Keep on dancing, Caroline. Keep on skiing, Summit Tigers. And keep on keepin’ on, Chris.
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