After six years, Daina Shilts finally wins unified snowboard gold with Mike Schultz
Daina Shilts has become as much of an X Games mainstay as any other athlete competing this week at Buttermilk. Her enthusiasm each of the past five years in the Special Olympics Unified snowboarding competition isn’t easily forgotten.
Then came Thursday, her sixth time competing in the event, which happens to be in its sixth year, which ended with her winning X Games gold for the first time.
“After six years I finally got it. Oh my gosh, my adrenaline is so high right now,” a fast-talking Shilts said from the bottom of the slalom course. “I’m shaking so bad. I’ve worked so hard to get this. But in the end it’s not about finishing first, it’s about finishing, having fun and interacting.”
From Neillsville, Wisconsin, Shilts won a silver once alongside Olympic gold medalist Hannah Teter. She’s also won four gold, five silver and two bronze medals competing at the Special Olympics World Winter Games in 2013 and 2017.
This winter at X Games Aspen, she partnered with Minnesota’s Mike Schultz, an adaptive motorsport athlete who entered this year’s games at Buttermilk with nine career X Games gold medals between the summer and winter events.
“This one is pretty special. It’s the first team event I’ve done and I’m so happy for Daina and her winning the gold,” Schultz said. “She’s been here for six years and to be here while she won her first gold was pretty dang special. You could see the expression on her face and just overwhelming excitement. So I’m really happy I could be part of that moment.”
The unified event is a head-to-head snowboard race between teams of two: one Special Olympics athlete and one professional. The event has long been dominated by Aspen’s own Chris Klug, an Olympic bronze medalist in alpine snowboarding, and Special Olympics athlete Henry Meece of Oregon. This year, Meece partnered with X Games host Jack Mitrani for bronze.
California’s Danny Davis, one of the best snowboarders in the world who also competed in Thursday’s men’s superpipe final, won silver alongside Russia’s Dmitri Tiufiakov. Other notable pros who competed included Aspen’s Gretchen Bleiler and Austria’s Anna Gasser.
“This event is pretty special. It brings out the best in sport,” Schultz said. “The Special Olympic athletes, obviously they are going through some challenges in life and for them to be able to come out and compete on a stage like X Games and be teamed up with pros of the sport, it’s incredible.”
SKIERS MAKE UNIFIED DEBUT
New this year was the addition of a skiing competition to the unified event, won by Telluride freeskier Gus Kenworthy and Denver’s Palmer Lyons, who was decked out in a full speed suit for Thursday’s race.
Lyons said he is a close friend with Denver’s Cody Field, a notable Special Olympic athlete who won three gold medals at the 2013 Special Olympics World Winter Games in Korea. Hearing of Field competing at X Games inspired Lyons to want to try it himself with skiing making its unified debut at Buttermilk.
“It’s very special and I’m so glad they include skiing and I’m so grateful I was asked to be a part of it and I feel very lucky that I was partnered with Palmer,” said Kenworthy, a five-time X Games medalist. “This one is very special to me. It’s actually my first X Games gold, so that’s amazing. I’ve got a handful of silver and bronze, but it just feels incredible and I really got to give it up to Palmer, because it was all him.”
Winning silver in the ski race Thursday was Aspen’s Alex Ferreira, the reigning X Games ski halfpipe champion who will compete in Sunday’s final. He partnered with Denver’s Haldan Pranger to hold off bronze finishers Sarah Hoefflin, a freeskier from Switzerland who won X Games Aspen big air gold in 2018, and Boulder’s Kohlor Von Eschen.
Ferreira, who also has an Olympic silver medal in halfpipe skiing, is making a name for himself as a ski racer this winter, having partnered with NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson to win the annual Audi Ajax Cup on Dec. 30, a fundraiser for the Aspen Valley Ski and Snowboard Club.
“There might be a career switch in the future,” Ferreira joked. “It’s an amazing experience, first and foremost. I was lucky enough to do the unified BMX Special Olympics during Summer X Games, and then they asked me to do skiing and I noticed it was the first year and I said, ‘Of course, absolutely I’d love to be a part of it.’”
Finishing fourth in Thursday’s ski race was Nevada’s David Wise, a two-time Olympic gold medalist in halfpipe skiing, and Denver’s Andrew Carlson. Wise, who was a ski racer until his early teens when he switched to freeskiing, liked the banter between the professionals. He, Ferreira and Kenworthy all are competing against each other this weekend in the halfpipe.
Olympic and X Games halfpipe champion Cassie Sharpe of Canada and Montana slopestyle specialist Maggie Voisin, another X Games champion, also competed.
“I’ve watched it on the snowboard side in the past and always thought it was super cool. So as soon as they announced they were going to do ski I threw my name in the hat,” Wise said. “We were definitely talking trash back and forth and making it fun and interesting — it’s a super cool event because it’s all about camaraderie. For me getting to meet my teammate Andrew and just see his passion for skiing and his excitement for life is pretty special.”
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Maybe leave the dance shoes at home, but it’s still race on come Saturday for the 16th annual Summit for Life on Aspen Mountain. While the pandemic will again silence the post-race party at the top, the Chris Klug Foundation fundraiser’s popular trek up Ajax is back and ready to entertain.