Friday, December 9, 2011

Special Olympics team seeks coaches

Nordic squad begins training Jan. 7

Express Staff Writer

Express file photo Special Olympics competitors ski a Nordic course in Sun Valley.

Sun Valley Adaptive Sports is looking for volunteers willing to measure progress slowly but surely while working with some very special athletes.

The Wood River Valley Special Olympics Nordic Team needs coaches of all abilities and skill levels, said head coach Lisa Huttinger, even people who don't ski. More advanced coaches are always welcome, however.

"We need people of all abilities, because we have athletes of all abilities," she said.

She said one athlete is so fast on classic skis that she had to find a coach to follow him on skate skis just to keep up, while other athletes need significantly more help.

The Nordic team started in 2008, just before the Nordic events of the Special Olympic World Winter Games were held in Hailey in 2009. Huttinger had been involved with a Special Olympics Nordic team in Jackson Hole, but when she approached Sun Valley Adaptive Sports about volunteering, the organization did not have a team.

She began acting as the head coach in 2008, making this season the team's fourth winter.

Sun Valley Adaptive Sports works with about 15 athletes in swimming, snowboarding, bowling and alpine and Nordic skiing. Kate Weihe, operations manager for the organization, said Special Olympics athletes are fully funded, including travel, coaching and other expenses.

Last year, Huttinger said she had 10 athletes, seven of whom also competed in alpine skiing at the regional games held annually.

Competitors in the regional games can qualify for the state games, but qualifying to compete in the world games relies on a combination of performance, ability to travel independently and other factors not related to how fast they can ski or how well they can snowboard.

"It's not just the fastest skier, because that's not the spirit of the Special Olympics," Huttinger said.

Last year, 18 volunteers came out to help the athletes in one form or another. Volunteers don't have to commit to the entire 10-week training circuit, and do not have to have any special skills, Huttinger said.

"If people are new to cross-country skiing, it's fun for the athletes because they are learning as well," she said. "When it comes to putting sticks on your feet and travelling across snow, we're all in the same boat."

Many of the coaches don't even put on skis, she said, and simply straddle the tracks while aiding athletes and showing them how to glide. The only requirement is being able to enjoy having fun, Huttinger said, because the athletes clearly love what they're doing.

"One of the things I love about our Nordic team is that most of the athletes are not competing in Nordic," she said. "Depending on the year, half to three-quarters of the athletes are just coming out for fun."

Weihe said the athletes range in age from 8 to 60, and have a range of cognitive and developmental disabilities. Huttinger said working with the athletes is rewarding for volunteers, though it requires a good deal of patience.

She said one of her favorite memories is of one athlete who required three coaches to put on skis. By the end of the season, the athlete was able to clip into the skis independently.

"This athlete's parents almost cried when they found out the athlete could stand on one foot to clip into a ski," she said. "That's a great memory."

Residents interested in volunteering to coach the Nordic team will attend two training sessions in December. The first is dry-land training from 5:30-7:30 p.m. on Wednesday, Dec. 14, at Carol's Dollar Mountain Lodge, while the second is on-snow training from 9:30-11 a.m. on Saturday, Dec. 17, location to be determined. Athletes will train from 9:30-11 a.m. on Saturdays in January and February, but volunteers are not required to attend all sessions.

For more information or to volunteer, call Huttinger at 726-4333.

Katherine Wutz:

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