Special Olympics

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(HOST) Winter weather came late this year, but commentator John Morton says that didn’t do a thing to dampen the spirits of the competitors at one recent winter sports event.

(MORTON) For those of us who love outdoor sports, this winter was beginning to look like a big disappointment. By mid-January we had only a couple of inches of snow over a bulletproof crust. Some of us were feeling pretty depressed. But I found a cure.

The temperature at the base of the Dartmouth Skiway on the blustery morning of January 20th was fourteen degrees Fahrenheit, and the wind chill at the top of the mountain was ten below. But you couldn’t tell that from the cheerful faces of more than one hundred and sixty competitors and nearly two hundred volunteers gathered for the Fifth Annual Special Olympics Upper Valley Winter Games, a festival of Alpine skiing, snowboarding, cross country skiing and snowshoe racing for individuals with developmental challenges. The Skiway was packed with eager athletes, volunteers and spectators, all energized by the pure joy of sport.

It would be impossible to determine which group benefited the most from the experience: the volunteers, the participants or the spectators. Games Director Peter Bleyler, a Dartmouth alum whose daughter, Tracy will represent the USA at the World Games in China next summer, leverages his Big Green connections to recruit two hundred volunteers who do everything from setting slalom poles and timing snowshoe sprints, to making seven hundred sandwiches for lunch.

Then, there is the unabashed excitement of the athletes.

When complemented on her impressive finish in the fifty yard snowshoe event, nine-year-old Darian Deluca from Peterboro, NH, modestly beamed, “It’s my first day on snowshoes!” Brandon Towne, another athlete from Peterboro, dominated his heats in both the fifty and one hundred meter snowshoe sprints. After his events, Brandon confirmed the obvious, “I’m fast,” he said.

The final group consists of spectators. Many are friends and relatives of the athletes, whose response, when asked about the Special Olympics is simply, “It’s wonderful!” Other spectators include local groups and teams who attend every year to cheer. The young women of Hanover and Lebanon’s ice hockey teams made the finish line of the snowshoe race sound like a Bruins game in the old Boston Garden.

As awards were being distributed, cocoa was being sipped, the beautiful new McLane Family Lodge was bursting at its seams. It was easy to imagine the founders of Dartmouth skiing; Fred Harris, Walter Prager, Otto Schneibs and Al Merrill all smiling with satisfaction. In fact, standing virtually unnoticed in the crush was Tiger Shaw, America’s top Alpine skier at the Calgary Olympics and a multiple National Champion.

It’s really all about the joy of participation. The Special Olympics pledge states it perfectly, “Let me win. But if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt.” It was good to be reminded that you don’t always need perfect conditions to have a good time.

John Morton designs trails and writes about sports.

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