SNOWMASS - On a cold, snowy, winter morning, Alex Bender holds court in the bright, cheery and deliciously warm Challenge Aspen office on the Snowmass mall, talking to staff and demonstrating how to compete in the shot put.
She plants her feet firmly on the floor and raises her right arm close to her ear with her hand cupped, as if holding an imaginary shot. Then, she rocks back and forth two times, twisting slightly to the right in a windup before the final throw. Bender, who was born with Down syndrome, finished fifth in the shot put at the 2012 National Special Olympics Summer Games in Lincoln, Neb., and her relay team finished second. She placed in the top 10 in the 100- and 200-meter dashes.
But Bender, who is 19 and lives in El Jebel, said running is not her thing; she likes skiing best.
"I love snow the most," she said with an easy smile.
And to prove it, she took home the gold in ski racing at last year's state Special Olympics winter games at Copper Mountain.
That gold medal was her ticket to what could be the biggest thrill of her life. At the end of January, Bender heads to South Korea with the Colorado contingent of Special Olympics Team USA to compete as an alpine skier in the 10th annual Special Olympics World Games.
Jenny Chase, director of sports and training for Special Olympics Colorado, said each athlete who wins a gold medal is eligible to go to the World Games, but it's up to the athlete.
"They fill out an application, and then their name is put into a hat along with other athletes in their division." The hat, she said, is a red Special Olympics ballcap.
Bender was chosen to represent Colorado and the U.S. this year as an alpine skier. She was at Challenge Aspen just after Christmas to practice for the event. Houston Cowan, founder and CEO of Challenge America and co-founder and CEO of Challenge Aspen, said Bender is the first member of the Challenge Aspen family to become a world Special Olympian.
"She'll be a role model," he said. "This opens the door to train others to follow in Alex's footsteps."
Challenge Aspen has given Bender a scholarship for 14 half-days of skiing with a buddy to train for the Special Olympics. One buddy is Ellie Barber, an intern from Seattle. She and Bender trade laughs in the Challenge Aspen lobby while Alex's mother, Gary, shops for ski socks. Bender left hers at home, which almost derailed the day's skiing. She looks at Barber and says, "You're funny," which starts a round of one-upmanship: "No, you're funny," Barber replies. "You're funnier." "No, you're funnier," until they're both laughing.
Cowan said he can think of no one better than Bender to represent the U.S. in Korea.
"I can be having the worst day and I'll almost pray that Alex will walk into the room," he said warmly. "We need to drink the water she's drinking."
He added high marks for her skills.
"Alex is gifted and resilient, and she trusts herself," he said. "If she falls, she gets up and gets going."
But it hasn't always been that way. Bender started skiing in Michigan when she was 6. The family lived in Deerfield, Ill., and would head north to ski.
Gary Bender, founder and director of local nonprofit Valley Life for All, said her husband, John, was determined to teach Alex, their elder daughter, Courtney, and their son, Tom, who is younger, to ski. But Alex Bender spent more time on her face than on her skis the first time out.
"I didn't like it," Alex said.
Realizing that the kids were not going to learn to ski in Michigan, the family began taking ski vacations to Crested Butte in 2003. Gary Bender put Alex in the adaptive ski program, which clicked for her daughter like ski boots into bindings.
When the family moved to the Roaring Fork Valley three years later, Alex Bender joined the Roaring Fork Mountain Ninos, a local Special Olympics team.
"She identifies herself as a skier," said Ryan Latham, adaptive snow sports manager at Challenge Aspen, who has known Bender for five years. He said it takes drive and commitment to reach Bender's level of skiing and he's seen "tons" of progress.
"She is a lot more self-sufficient," he offered. "She can get to and from the mountain, and on the mountain, she decides where we're going."
Cammi Menager, who coaches the Roaring Fork Mountain Ninos team along with Paul Squadrito and Kiara Christianson, agreed. The team practices on Saturdays at West Buttermilk. She met Bender in 2006 and coaches her in summer and winter sports.
"It was a match made in heaven," she said.
Menager has noticed improvements in Bender's stamina and her ability to follow directions.
"In the beginning, Alex wouldn't execute what she was hearing," Menager said. "She didn't know how to make her body do what we were telling her to do."
Now, Bender can put into practice what her coaches suggest. Menager added that Bender no longer snowplows down the hill, which indicates confidence.
"She's moved out of the power wedge," Menager said. "Now she parallel skis all the way down."
What Bender has learned on the slopes has translated into life skills. Menager noted that Bender is better able to cope with situations and is better at being a good sport.
"You understand that life goes on and you can get back on your feet and try again," she added. "She's gotten really good at that."
Bender's skiing career, however, hasn't been all champagne powder; there have been bumps and icy stretches along the way. Chase has been chosen to go to Korea as a snowshoe coach. She accompanied the Special Olympics Colorado team last November to a training camp at Lake Placid, N.Y., in the Adirondacks. Chase described the five-day camp as a dry run for January's games.
"You get to see how well (the athletes) do away from family, how well they travel and how self-sufficient they are," she explained. "This is where they bond with their team and their coaches."
Bender became fast friends with her teammates, figure skater Amanda Douglass, of Arvada, snowboarder Cody Field, of Centennial, cross-country skiers Rachel Kurth, of Denver, and Bryan Terry, of Aurora, and fellow alpine skier Michael Sieger, of Boulder. But the bonding with coaches was a bit more challenging. Brandon Undeberg, from Cody, Wyo., is the assistant alpine coach for Team USA. He met the team for the first time in New York and he, too, will accompany the team to Korea. He said the snow at Lake Placid was different than Colorado snow.
"It was man-made snow, and the bottom packs down and gets icy," he said.
At one point, Bender got stranded on a run.
"I couldn't get down, and I was really cold," she recalled. "The ski patrol had to bring me down."
The ice was annoying on the first day, she said, and the snowmaking machines were loud.
"The loud noise bothers me, so I wore ear plugs," she said.
Gary Bender said her daughter became frightened because she was out of her comfort zone and acted out.
"Her coach didn't know what to do with her," she said. But, Gary Bender explained, this is sometimes how her daughter communicates that she's having a hard time.
"She wasn't comfortable and didn't know how to talk to her coach," Gary Bender said. "So she faked some injuries."
And she was less-than sportsmanlike with Undeberg. Alex Bender later wrote Undeberg an apology letter, but her mom blamed her own complacency for the problems in New York. She said she wasn't as vigilant as she could have been.
"Alex may be independent and capable, but she still has a disability," Gary Bender said. "We took it for granted that she was fine."
Undeberg, who has coached Special Olympic athletes for several years, is understanding.
"This is a big experience for anyone," he said. He encouraged Alex Bender to practice on unfamiliar runs for the next several weeks and get comfortable with being uncomfortable.
"I think she's going to be just fine," he said.
Gary Bender plans to beef up support and stay in touch with Undeberg between now and the end of the month, when the team leaves for Korea.
Menager has her misgivings about the World Games but only because Colorado's ski season just got started. She plans to put in some extra time with Alex Bender on Saturday afternoons and Sundays. Menager described Bender as an aggressive and determined super G skier who does better on the racecourse than she does on everyday runs.
"When she gets on the course, that's all there is in the world for her," Menager said. "She can rip up the course."
"If she can ski like that all the time, she'll be great."
Back at the Challenge Aspen office, Gary Bender returns with her daughter's new ski socks as Alex Bender and Barber point to ski runs on a Snowmass trail map.
"Which one is your favorite?" Barber asks.
"I'll take you," Bender whispers with a twinkle in her eye.
Bender and the rest of the 151 Team USA athletes and 44 coaches fly to South Korea a few days before opening ceremonies Jan. 29. They will join more than 3,000 athletes from 112 countries for the 10th annual Special Olympics World Games. Gary and Courtney Bender will leave after Alex Bender, on a separate plane.
"Families are not allowed to associate with the athletes during the games," Gary Bender said. "But we'll be cheering her on."
So will everybody from Challenge Aspen and Mountain Ninos.
"She'll get a great sendoff," Houston Cowan said. "And her picture will go up on our Wall of Fame."
To find out more about the 2013 Special Olympics World Games, visit www.specialolympics.org.