Friday, February 1, 2013

Why We Ski

Special Olympians find higher ground


    As hundreds of competitive and recreational cross-country skiers put the final coat of wax on their skis and prepare to line up at the start of tomorrow’s Boulder Mountain Tour, another group of athletes is also arriving in Sun Valley, ready to compete and shine.
    On Saturday, Feb. 2, more than 100 Special Olympians will take to courses on Dollar Mountain and at the Sun Valley Nordic and Snowshoe Center in their regional competition. The special day will include alpine skiing, snowboarding and Nordic events.
    Ketchum-based nonprofit organization Higher Ground is the local affiliate for the Special Olympics organization. Higher Ground, formerly known as Sun Valley Adaptive Sports, supports both a recreational program for athletes with special needs and a military program. The recreational offerings include a winter program, summer camp, Special Olympics and after-school activities. For wounded veterans, Higher Ground sponsors eight weeklong events for veterans and their caregivers. They include snow sports, rafting, water sports and fly fishing. This program distinguishes itself in myriad ways, one of the most important being that the organization follows up with each veteran for three years after his or her Idaho experience.
    This weekend, though, it’s all about the Special Olympics. Head alpine coach Jeff Rust encourages the community to come out tomorrow to cheer on the athletes. Teams will be arriving at Dollar with a police escort, and the Wood River High School Choir will sing the National Anthem at the opening ceremonies of both the alpine and Nordic events. The Nordic opening ceremony will take place at 10:30 a.m. and the alpine opening ceremony commences at 11 a.m.
    At Dollar, slalom and giant slalom races for skiers and snowboarders begin at 11:15 a.m. and will wrap up around 2:30 p.m. An awards ceremony will follow. About 40 athletes are expected to compete. Two courses will be set on Quarter Dollar, one for intermediate/advanced skiers and boarders and one for beginners. Lenny Joseph, local radio jock and DJ extraordinaire, will emcee the event.
    Rust, who has been involved with Special Olympics for four years, said the local athletes are excited to be hosting this regional event, a first for Sun Valley.
    “Everyone is very proud it’s on our territory and we’re thrilled for the opportunity to compete in front of hometown fans,” Rust said.
    Spectators are equally excited.
    “Two classes at Hemingway Elementary are making sandwiches for the athletes and will attend the alpine events with banners and cowbells,” explained Rust. “It’s part of a service project and the kids are really excited.”
    Rust, a valley business owner, first got involved with the Higher Ground organization, thinking he would focus on the military programs.
    “Then we heard that the snow sports athletes practice every Wednesday on Dollar from 2-4 p.m. and it was a great fit for me and my company,” he said. “Every week we close the office down during that time and all 10 of us go to Dollar to help coach and train our athletes. I can’t tell you how much we get out of it. It really improves office morale!”
    At the Sun Valley Nordic Center, Saturday’s event is expected to draw 70 participants in cross-country and snowshoe categories, minus one local celebrity who is busy elsewhere.
    “Locally, we train more than 20 Nordic and alpine athletes with cognitive disabilities,” said Higher Ground Director of Operations Kate Weihe. “You will see many of them out this weekend. Jerry Smith, one of our cross-country skiers from Bellevue is at the World Games in South Korea right now, representing the United States. We’re really proud of him and of all our athletes.”
    Higher Ground actively seeks to improve the lives of its participants, and the numbers Weihe breaks out to quantify this mission are impressive: 120 veterans take part in local programs each year; to date this winter season, recreational participants have logged 692 hours of on-snow lesson time; and more than 100 volunteers support Higher Ground’s mission, as do a dozen-plus staffers.
    “All of us absolutely love what we do,” Weihe said. “We get to focus on sportsmanship and participation as well as skill building and to support our local athletes and our veterans in very meaningful ways.”
    The unbridled joy, the expansive freedom that comes with the perfect turn, a graceful glide, white snow beneath you and the blue sky above are universal.  As the motto of Higher Ground states, “achieving new heights through adaptive sports” is the goal.
    Come see this goal in action for yourself this weekend. Let’s elevate the conversation.

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