ATHLETES FIND FUN IN SPECIAL OLYMPICS
Clifton Journal - 2/9/2018
VERNON -- Special Olympic athletes from throughout the state gathered at the Mountain Creek ski area this week for an annual event focused on camaraderie more than competition.
New Jersey's 40th Winter Games at Mountain Creek featured cross-country skiing, alpine skiing, snowshoeing, snowboarding and speed skating for some 260 athletes. Opening ceremonies were Feb. 5.
On Feb. 6, Garfield's Lexi Bonin earned herself a pair of medals in showshoe events.
"There's not a lot out there for kids with special needs," said her mother, Danielle Bonin. "The Special Olympics is great for them."
Among just a handful of Bergen County middle school students represented at the games, Lexi wore a blue-and-white hat with a pompon, and held a medal in each hand. The first-time participant won gold in both the 100- and 200-meter snowshoe races.
Snowshoes or not, Lexi said she just likes to run outside. Her mother said it was likely the first of many Special Olympics competitions for her daughter, who despite her shyness was having a blast.
Lexi was joined by neighbors from just across the Passaic River - four Clifton Special Olympic athletes who also competed in snowshoes. The Feb. 6 race was the main event, but the quartet were on hand the day before for the snowshoe time trials, a warmup for the athletes.
Going into Feb. 6, Clifton's Woodrow Wilson Middle School had two medal winners, Michael Shimabukuro and Jayson Hinton, and first-timer Anissa Fraser competing. Representing Clifton High School was Alexxa Petti, said Clifton's Play Unified coordinator Carla Rodriguez.
The foursome raced in the 100- and 200-meter snowshoe event and in the Play Unified relays with general education partners Daniel Barrow, Anthony Comacho, Sara Hernandez and Jillian Kiveiler.
Anissa took home gold and Alexxa won bronze.
"My Anissa is fast," Rodriguez said, adding, "The other athletes were chasing her."
The snoeshow race was part of Play Unified, a Special Olympics program in which general education and special education students play sports together and take part in social activities. The idea is to break down barriers.
Rodriguez said participation in the winter games is important not just to the students, but to all who witness what the athletes can do.
"This will let people see that they don't give our athletes enough credit," Rodriguez said. "They are so much more able than people give them credit for."
To get this far, all the participants have to commit to practicing for the event. The team typically will get up to Mountain Creek in the early morning and practice at the ski facility before the mountain opens for business, Rodriguez said.
Jeremy Davis, the marketing and communications director for Special Olympics New Jersey, said the 167-acre ski area in Vernon is the ideal location for the event.
Mountain Creek has served as the games' venue for the past 40 years and is the home mountain for many of the athletes. The volunteers are invariably out in force, and the management has been exceptionally welcoming, Davis said.
"They basically just give us the mountain and say, 'Here you go,'" he said.
Garth Brown, the area director for Bergen County's roughly 500 Special Olympics athletes, said he could not be more appreciative of the involvement in the event over the last 31 years.
A special police officer in Ridgefield, Brown handles the award announcements at the games and has also drafted his wife and children to volunteer. The event is more than a competition, he said.
"Winter Games is a smaller group of athletes, a small group of volunteers. It's more of a family event than it is a sporting event," Brown said. "We've seen them grow up in this sport and the movement, and it's really neat."
Special Olympics New Jersey consists of more than 25,000 athletes, 26,000 volunteers and 20,000 family members.
Seeing the athletes enjoy themselves makes the volunteer work worthwhile, said Brown, who is also heavily involved in the Law Enforcement Torch Run program, which brings awareness to the Special Olympics each year.
"It's been a good experience," Brown said. "It's not just about sports. It's about inclusion."
The desire for inclusion is what spurred parents in Ringwood, Wanaque and neighboring communities to form the Lakeland Special Olympics team two years ago. Now comprising 47 athletes more than 8 years old, plus 15 ages 3 to 8, the team has group meetings or practices two to three times a week, said volunteer Patricia Siegel.
"It was important to us that our athletes be together as a community," she said. "It's been wonderful for the families. Things like snowshoeing, the whole family can do it."
Lakeland Special Olympics team members Rolando Sanchez-Pena, Ian Garcia and Kristian "Big K" Solis all competed Tuesday in snowshoeing events.
Alexis Muns became involved in the Special Olympics to support her sister, Courtney. Courtney was participant at the World Special Olympics Winter Games in Austria last year, as she happily pointed out, noting the rarity of her team-issued pants. Courtney said she loves to run in the snow but loves the games because it is "also great to make new friends."
Alexis Muns is studying special education in college and works at a special needs camp in addition to volunteering for her sister's team. The reason behind her devotion was partially summed up by her cousin, Grace Accardi, who said seeing the athletes on the podium, smiling with their hands held high, is reward enough.
"They are having so much fun," she said. "Seeing everyone with their medals, it's so cute."