Aspen Times Weekly: Hearts of Gold | AspenTimes.com

Aspen Times Weekly: Hearts of Gold

by Jill Beathard

MEDAL COUNT:

Chris Guay: 2 Gold

Knoll Featherstone: 2 Gold

Justin Jolley: 2 Gold

Elliott Maxwell: 1 Gold, 1 Silver

Emily Garcia: 2 Gold

Ella Munk: 1 Gold, 1 Silver

Tanner Jadwin: 2 Gold

Max Peters: Participation

All finished with their races, the teens were loading up on snacks and water, waiting to hear their names called at the award ceremony. Most of them were taking home medals, so spirits were high as they flitted around the room chatting with their friends. One girl changed out of her ski clothes and put on a dress — at 15, she was more about the dance to follow.

This was no ordinary kids’ athletic event — and yet, it was. That’s really what Special Olympics does: it gives kids, and adults, with intellectual disabilities the opportunity to have the same experiences every other kid in America has.

As explained to me by one of the mothers, Stephanie Munk, Special Olympics is important because it gets them active, they succeed, they form lasting friendships, and they visit new places.

Sound familiar?

Munk and her husband, David, kept this group of local athletes in Special Olympics after losing their coach two years ago. Their daughter, 15-year-old Ella, has been skiing with Special Olympics for five years. While the dance might be more important to her now, that’s all the more reason for her to keep doing it, Munk said.

“I love Special Olympics,” said Emily Garcia. “Special Olympics is a great thing for kids with disabilities. Number one, you get to meet people from different cities and even in your city. Second, you get to win awards. … And third, I love skiing, and I’m an ambitious skier.”

Ella and Emily are about the same age and have become close friends through participating in Special Olympics together. That’s one of the strengths of the current crop of athletes from the valley, most of whom are in their teens, said Maria Peters, whose son Max participates. It’s huge for them to interact and make friends with peers their own age, she said.

“This doesn’t happen in most adaptive programs,” she said.

Making it HAPPEN

The Munks solicited the help of local nonprofit Challenge Aspen this year. Special Olympics funds the athletes’ participation, but Challenge Aspen is helping with paperwork, transportation and other logistics, explained Deb Gravelle, Challenge Aspen’s recreational, educational and cultural program director. This year they went to a regional Special Olympics tournament at Ski Cooper, and eight team members qualified for the statewide competition at Copper on Feb. 28, where almost all of them took home multiple medals.

For the one athlete who didn’t medal, the day was still a huge success. This has been Max Peters’ first season skiing independently.

“This is the first year he’s following his buddies, following his coaches,” said Maria Peters. “It’s a super big deal for my kid.”

All of the athletes attribute their progress this season to the volunteer coaches recruited by Challenge Aspen — McCabe Mallin and John Przonek — who have spent every Saturday in training with them.

“They’ve pushed me,” said 18-year-old Justin Jolley, who took gold in both the slalom and giant slalom at state.

In fact, the success the athletes have experienced this season means that three of them — Jolley, Chris Guay and Knoll Featherstone — are headed to the NASTAR Nationals in Steamboat this week, from March 22-26. In addition to its handicap system, NASTAR has adaptive disciplines for physical and cognitive disabilities. Jolley and Featherstone even won scholarships from Disabled Sports USA.

“I don’t think anyone actually believed me when I said we could qualify for nationals,” Mallin said. “Of course I push them, that’s what a coach is supposed to do.”

A reason WHY

A former U.S. Ski Team member and Aspen native, Mallin works with X Games athlete Henrik Harlaut in the slopestyle and big air disciplines. Coaching the Special Olympics is a purely volunteer gig. He could have been at the Oslo X Games on Feb. 28 — where Harlaut took gold in big air — but he decided the Special Olympics tournament was more important for him to be at.

For him, coaching and skiing are his world, so volunteering with the group was a no-brainer.

“What better way to give back to the community than do this?” Mallin said.

Mallin accompanied Featherstone during the state race, coaching him through the course and giving him tips on how to improve his first run. A bright 17-year-old who wants to study genetic engineering, Featherstone’s family convinced him to participate in Special Olympics with the prospect of a college scholarship. Mom’s just happy that he’s getting outside.

“This has opened up a whole new world for us,” said Charmian Featherstone.

While at first resistant to joining the group, Special Olympics has gotten Featherstone, whose parents are Snowmass ski patrollers, back into the sport. He took gold in both his events at state.

“I do truly enjoy skiing,” said Knoll. “I’m very good at it. I’ve been skiing since I was 2 or 3 years old. My favorite part though is the competitiveness.”

Guay, a member of Challenge Aspen’s adult team, has competed in Special Olympics for 18 years. The Glenwood Springs resident is Special Olympics’ athlete of the year, and is being inducted into the organization’s hall of fame. Challenge Aspen helps Guay secure a discounted ski pass.

“If it wasn’t for Challenge Aspen, I wouldn’t be skiing,” Guay said.

David Munk said in addition to Special Olympics, it was important to acknowledge the support of Challenge Aspen and Aspen Skiing Co. in providing access for the athletes to train and enjoy the mountains.

“This year’s been a real breakthrough year for the Special Olympics program, and we really owe that to the sponsorship and involvement of Challenge Aspen,” David Munk said. “They’ve provided a real level of support through their volunteer program and also their facilities, their access.

“The other key sponsor for us is the Aspen Skiing Co., because without them we wouldn’t have the ability to make this available to athletes and their parents. These families need such a great outlet to be able to develop physically, socially and emotionally. … It really sets a great stage for the future.”

jill@snowmasssun.com


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