CARRABASSETT VALLEY — Monday morning’s frigid 5-degree temperatures weren’t cold enough to offset the warmth generated by the beaming faces, infectious smiles, and constant, echoing laughter of athletes, volunteers and spectators at the 42nd annual Special Olympics Maine Winter Games at Sugarloaf USA.
”Watching those kids get a medal and just seeing their faces is worth every ounce of being frozen, filling out paperwork, calling people, and organizing,” said Jo Spalding, a special education teacher at Madison Elementary School, Special Olympics volunteer for 13 years, and current coach of the Madison Special 59ers. “This is a time to make memories, and their moment to shine is just incredible.”
Special Olympians ages 8 to 70 were shining all over the sprawling, snow-shrouded resort competing in snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, and downhill skiing events on the first day of the three-day event.
Carrabassett Valley Academy’s soccer field was the primary site for Monday’s snowshoeing competitions (25-, 50-, 100- and 400-meter races). Approximately 225 athletes gathered at the packed-down, snow-groomed courses, making it the largest venue, competitors-wise at Sugarloaf.
The short and long courses, marked by multicolored- plastic flags and stick markers, drew rave reviews from coaches and racers alike.
“Here my favorite is snowshoeing. I like it because it’s faster,” said 46-year-old Kerry Simmons, a longtime Special Olympian from Norridgewock.
Simmons, a member of the easily recognizable Madison Bullfrogs team whose members are all clad in fluorescent/neon lime green coats and scarves, says she prefers the summer games because they’re warmer.
The Madison Bullfrogs coach, Maxine Buzzell, who is now retired after working 20 years as a mental health worker, is in her 38th year as a Special Olympics coach and volunteer.
“I love it. It’s a challenge for me, but it’s very rewarding,” Buzzell said. “They’re all a part of my family, or my extended family. You become close with the athletes and form a lot of lasting relationships.”
And as an added bonus, she had direct influence on the team’s distinctive color scheme.
“We get this stuff off athletic equipment companies online. It’s a real bright color and our athletes love it,” she said. “We’re easy to spot.”
Simmons, a 25-year Special Olympics veteran competitor, has even competed in the International Games in Dublin, Ireland.
When asked what her favorite part of the Winter Games was, she needed only about two seconds to answer.
”Going home,” she said with a laugh. “It’s cold!”
The cold is something organizers, volunteers, coaches and athletes are all taking extra precautions against.
“This ranks up there as one of the colder days we’ve had over the years, and the wind adds to it when it gets going once in awhile,” said Scott Gregory, a Special Olympics volunteer for 25 years, the last 16 of which he has served as secretary for the board of directors. “We just make sure everyone’s dressed warmly and that the flow of the trials and events goes right along so no one is standing around very long.
“I think we’re the ones who get colder because they’re moving around a lot more.”
Matt Poland, a 17-year-old participant in the last three Winter and Summer Games, said he kept warm by jogging a lot between snowshoe events.
As much as he enjoyed the snowshoeing, the Winter Games have many other attractions for Poland, a member of the Lincoln Academy team.
“I’m snowshoeing, but I want to ski downhill sometime,” said Poland with a big smile. “I like the 400 because I think I do better in that one.”
Poland has a lot of things on his plate. The National Honor Society student trains as a swimmer as well as a runner and will be competing in the 3,000- and 1,500-meter runs at the International Games in Greece in June.
His interests aren’t just limited to the competitions.
“I like the snowmobiling rides and we got to go on the grooming for the skiing,” he said.
“I like meeting all the pretty girls,” he said with a large grin.
“That’s one of his aspirations, anyway,” said Poland’s coach, Sherri Chambers of Warren. “No, he’s great. He even keeps a log on his daily training to send his USA coach, who lives in Hawaii. He’ll be going to San Diego to train with him before going to Greece.”
Chambers said Poland is one of only three Special Olympians from Maine competing in Greece.
Besides veteran competitors like Poland, there were also many rookies competing at Sugarloaf. Emma Arndt, a 15-year-old from Rockland, could barely contain her excitement after finishing her first round of cross-country skiing at the resort’s Outdoor Center.
“It’s cool. I like falling down. I did awesome!” Arndt said.
Arndt was one of eight members of Karen Matthews Special Olympics team from Rockland featuring seven skiers and one snowboarder.
Madison and Rockland are among the smaller teams among the 50-plus competing. Others have three to four times as many competitors.
”We brought 30 athletes from age 19 to 69. I don’t think we’re the biggest team, but we’re one of the biggest,” said Duane Hall, coach of the OHI (formerly Opportunity Housing Incorporated) team from Bangor for the last 20 years.
Hall is typical of the coaches who take teams to the Winter and Summer Games each year: Lots of experience and a passion for the events.
“I really like the coaching part of it. I love coaching softball and basketball most and helping people compete and reach new heights.”