There was a time when opportunities for fitness and sport were not readily available for people with intellectual disability. Thankfully that has all changed and a wide variety of organized sports are available today through Special Olympic programs all over the world. The program is open to athletes of all abilities and is inclusive of all. My world literally changed when I became a ski racing coach with Special Olympics Ontario and the Blue Mountain Special Olympics team in Collingwood, Ontario Canada. Although everyone tells me how much they appreciate my time and the sacrifice of my Sundays, I think I am the one who appreciates my Sundays and have a lot to be thankful for. I have not yet found a more fulfilling coaching position in any sport. They give back more than I can give.
My primary athlete is a 22 year old man named Jeffery who has become someone I call a good friend. He is teachable and gets a little better every season. He is quick to share a joke and a laugh. In fact you can often hear him and a couple of the other athletes singing Jonny Cash songs on the chairlift! Nothing like “Burning Ring of Fire” on a cold January day! There are other athletes who ski with me even though they are not primarily assigned to me. They are friends with my Jeffery and like to ski together. Luckily their abilities are quite evenly matched so we are able to train together and everyone keeps up. It also makes doing drills a snap because they are all able to do them at a similar level.
The Ski Racing Program
In October we begin a “dry land” training program out of the National Ski Academy. This involves strength & conditioning work along with aerobic conditioning. The exercises are skiing specific and work to strengthen the athlete’s muscles in a way that will not only allow them to ski better but to be less injury prone as well. the program lasts for 8 weeks of Sundays.
In early January we take to the hills and begin the on-hill training program. Typical days begin at 8:30am with a warm up routine and stretch. Following that it’s free-skiing and drills specific to ski racing. The drills work on balance, coordination, and skiing technique. Teaching requires a completely different approach which is tailored to the ability and comprehension of the athlete. Almost universally we are taught to use physical teaching methods and not be wordy. It’s difficult to try to explaining complicated concepts like edging and angulation to any skier so verbal instruction doesn’t work well for the purposes of this program. I’ve learned that games and drills where they mimic my movements are far better to build muscle memory and reinforce positive techniques without the athlete realizing it. It’s a sort of instinctual physical learning. After the drills and warm up skiing we move to the course and they ski the course. Some Sundays it is a slalom course and other weekends it is a Giant Slalom (GS) course. The athletes wear watches that automatically time them as they go through the course. After each run these times are compared, ideas shared and we repeat for the rest of the day.
In a typical season there will be one or to away meets at other ski hills with several teams in attendance. These are warm up races leading up to the regional home race at Blue Mountain. These regional races act as a qualifier for the first level of a four year rotation that sees Provincials, Nationals and Worlds. The athlete must qualify through all of these levels to make it to the pinnacle – Worlds which are held all over the world. Past World competitions have been held in Korea, Austria and many other countries. At the end of the year we have the side by side slalom race where the athletes get to race against their coaches. This is a great fun way to wrap up the season that involves everyone. I guarantee you will make a huge impact on someone’s life if you join Special Olympics as a coach. I also guarantee that it will change your outlook on life and be the most rewarding satisfying experience you can have.
For more information and to get involved about Special Olympics visit these sites: http://www.specialolympics.org (Worldwide parent organization)
www.specialolympics.ca – Special Olympics Canada
www.specialolympicsontario.com – Special Olympics Ontario