By Mike White, Special Olympics Vermont coach with the Bennington program
The World Winter Games 2017 recently concluded. Held in several locations in Austria, the competition ran from March 17-24 and featured over 2,700 athletes from 110 countries competing in nine sports. With these figures it’s not surprising it was the largest sporting event in the world this year.
I was fortunate enough to be part of Special Olympic USA’s 200+ member delegation, as a coach on the Cross Country Ski Team. Our ski team consisted of 19 Special Olympic athletes, five coaches, a team manager and team doctor. The athletes and coaches came from across the country, from Maine to Washington and even included exceptional athletes from states not typically thought of as winter sports states, such as Maryland and Nebraska.
Shortly after being selected in the spring of 2016, the athletes began their training for the World Games. With the help of local coaches, parents and guardians, the SO USA coaches directed the athletes’ preparations through the summer and fall. In December the entire SO USA team met for a week-long training camp hosted with the help of SO Vermont in Killington. This worked well for me as while it took my fellow coach Jill three days to get from her home in Oregon to Killington, I was able to make the trip in just over an hour. The main goal of Training Camp is to provide the athletes with hours of dedicated and focused training and instruction, it is also crucial for allowing everyone to get to know each other and to begin to form a close-knit group that would function as a family and spend 12 days straight together in Austria. Our cross country team worked very hard throughout the week of Training Camp on both dryland and on-snow training and the coaches were impressed with how the group came together as a team by the end of the week.
From December through early March the cross country skiers continued to train and all had the opportunity to test their fitness in competition at their respective state winter games. In mid-March, the Special Olympics USA team congregated in Washington DC for a send-off celebration and then traveled to Austria. The first few days in Austria were spent participating in the cultural program known as Host Town, an opportunity to experience local culture while adjusting to the new time zone! The Austrian technology company AMS hosted the SO USA Team and the program they put together and the welcome they gave us was amazing.
The World Winter Games competition started on our third day in Austria. The cross country competition was held in Ramsau am Dachstein, a small village in the Austrian Alps that is a hot-spot for cross country skiing and home to a world-class competition venue. We were fortunate to have the experience of the local venue directors because very warm weather and some rain early in the competition week made for challenging conditions but the management crew worked very hard and wisely in order to maintain the snow and allow for all the competitions to be held. Not only was the venue well maintained but the scenery was spectacular, with the 5000 foot rock and snow walls of the Alps as a backdrop.
Eight days of competition and lots of races completed, the athletes and coaches were tired but very happy with how everything unfolded. Many of the athletes established personal bests in their events and there were plenty of smiles on faces and medals and ribbons hanging from skiers’ necks. The SO USA skiers had worked very hard, skied very fast and represented their country on the world stage with dignity and respect.
We were all very sad to leave Austria, and Ramsau am Dachstein in particular. The Games Management Team and a huge group of local volunteers did an amazing job at running a flawless world-class competition while making us feel so welcome. Shortly after returning home, one of our coaches stated that she felt she left a little piece of her heart in Austria and I’d say that’s likely the case for all of the Special Olympics USA team members.
World Games provides an opportunity for Special Olympic athletes to compete and interact with their peers from the around the world while learning about and experiencing a different culture, opportunities that aren’t readily available to many of them outside of Special Olympics. Playing a part in facilitating the trip and competition, as a coach, is a hugely rewarding experience. I feel fortunate to have been given the opportunity to be part of the Special Olympics USA Cross Country Ski Team and I’ve very proud of all the team’s athletes, coaches and support staff.
With the World Winter Games trip over I look forward to coaching basketball with our local SO Program in Bennington. Unfortunately, I missed the first practice of the season while I was in Austria so I have a feeling the athletes will have me running laps to make up it!