On Jan. 7, Rosemary Kennedy, sister of Special Olympics founder Eunice Kennedy Shriver, passed away at age 86 in a Wisconsin hospital, having lived much of her life in an institution for people with intellectual disabilities. Inspired by Rosemary, Eunice Kennedy Shriver founded the Special Olympics back in 1968; in 1970, Special Olympics Montana was founded in Great Falls, and today the Special Olympics serves more than 1.4 million people with intellectual disabilities worldwide. In March, Special Olympics Montana will host the state Winter Special Olympics at Big Mountain in Whitefish. Leading up to those games, the regional Bitterroot Winter Special Olympics will take place Jan. 25 and 26, involving about 100 competitors age 8 to 65 drawn from area middle schools, high schools and an adult team from the Missoula YMCA.
The two-day event at Lost Trail Powder Mountain is as much a celebration as it is a competition, say event organizers. Yes, these Olympics involve downhill, cross-country and snowshoe races, as well as opening and closing ceremonies, medals and ribbons. But they also include a themed banquet and dance (this year’s is Mardi Gras) infused with a camaraderie that the athletes anticipate perhaps even more than gold.
“These athletes live for the Special Olympics,” says coach Sherry Gray, the Special Olympics YMCA local program coordinator, who has been involved with the Special Olympics for almost 14 years. “It’s their life. They live from season to season.”
Gray’s 27-year-old daughter, Tawny, is 2005’s Athlete of the Year—an honor awarded for hard work at sports and fund raising over the course of the year, says Tawny—and she will compete in downhill skiing. So far she’s raised $1,000 from sponsors for her upcoming participation in the annual February Grizzly Dip, during which athletes and supporters jump into Missoula’s Spartan Pool to raise money for the games.
At a recent ski- and snowshoe-fitting at the Missoula YMCA, Tawny starts a pick-up basketball game with 1999’s Athlete of the Year, 63-year-old Eddie Stansberry, who will compete in cross-country this year. They’re joined by 27-year-old cross-country skier Hilary Benjamin, who competed in the 2001 Special Olympics Winter World Games in Alaska, and 26-year-old Damian Jasso, who’s competing for his fourth year. Ask any of them what the best part of the Special Olympics is and you’ll get the same answer: seeing old friends and meeting new ones.
Director of Games Randy Hodgson, who owns Earth & Wood in Stevensville and has been integral to the Bitterroot Winter Special Olympics since its inception 24 years ago, says the same: “After doing [the Olympics] for as long as I’ve done it, I now have a relationship with kids that were 10 and now they’re 25 or 30,” he says. “Every year, it’s like seeing old friends, and probably the most unique part about the Special Olympic athlete is that they don’t hold anything back. They tell it to you like it is. They express their feelings to the degree that they feel them.”
The YMCA team’s equipment director, Nancy Senne, whose 26-year-old son Shad is a competitor, agrees: “Seeing the smile when you don’t always see the smile” on these athletes, she says, is worth all the hours the volunteers put in. This year Senne will provide bright-green hats for the athletes, so she can keep an eye on them at Lost Trail. She says she always packs extra pairs of warm socks, too, because some of the competitors arrive wearing only dress socks—after all, there’s the dance to prepare for as well as the races.
Five Valleys Special Olympics Area Director Roger Miller says it’s hard to put into words what these Olympics do for the athletes. “It means a social outlet for them, it means a physical outlet for them. It’s a means to express themselves without being judged by other people, and to be happy and enjoy themselves in the company of people who have like disabilities,” he says. “It’s the joy of competition in their own element.”