March 20, 2018
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Olympics spirit on display during Winter Games at Sugarloaf

By John Holyoke, BDN Staff

CARRABASSETT VALLEY, Maine — Halfway through his 100-meter snowshoe qualifier during Monday’s Special Olympics Maine Winter Games, Korry Vann of Leeds began to suffer a fate that any super-speedy athlete may eventually find himself in.

The 24-year-old’s lucky Pikachu hat was doing its job, after all, and Vann was striding along smoothly at the front of the pack. He was, in fact, vying for the lead. But some of his garments were having a hard time keeping up.

“I’m losing my pants!” he shouted. Then, after grabbing hold of his waistband and correcting matters, he let loose with a bellow that showed his attitude had changed for the better.

“Yee-ha!” he yelled before bolting to the finish line.

At the end of the race, while sharing his tale of woe, a nearby fellow competitor told Vann that he sometimes has the same problem.

“I have a second pair under mine,” he said with a grin. Vann nodded his agreement at a plan that seemed to make perfect sense, especially after his own near disaster.

That was just one of hundreds of small dramas that played out at Sugarloaf on Monday, the first day of competition in the 49th annual Special Olympics Maine Winter Games.

Maine hosted the world’s first winter Special Olympics games in Gorham back in 1969. During this year, more than 400 athletes representing 58 teams flocked to Sugarloaf to compete, socialize, and enjoy some time away from their regular routines.

Special Olympics is a year-round athletic training and competition program for adults and children with intellectual disabilities. Over three days at Sugarloaf, athletes will compete in Nordic skiing, Alpine skiing, snowshoe racing, speed skating and dual ski.

Monday’s weather was perfect for competition, with temperatures around 20 degrees, sunny skies and virtually no wind. But conditions at the snowshoe venue were icy enough for volunteer starters to caution athletes to slow down and remain safe on the hard, crusty surface.

After cooling down, Vann said he was satisfied with his race, but was already looking ahead.

“I have to come back and do the whole shebang later,” he said. “But hopefully I can at least get a gold medal or two. Anything that’s medals, just give them to me.”

Vann said he enjoys coming to the Special Olympics, but the competition is only a part of the experience.

“[I like] getting to relax away from the peer pressure doing things at home,” he said.

At the winter games, some Olympians arrive at the starting line confident, while others need some coaxing. Still others will fare just fine, but aren’t sure that’s the case.

Put Kaylynn Cook of Poland into that last category.

Before she toed the line for a 100-meter snowshoe race, a volunteer told her and her fellow Olympians that they’d have to run all the way to the end of the course, where timers stood waiting.

“All the way down?” she asked. “I can’t do that.”

She did do that, and won her heat to boot. Then, in true Special Olympics fashion, she spent a long time standing at the finish line, waiting for the other competitor to finish.

Once there, that racer received a prize better than any medal: A hug from Kaylynn.

Later, before running the 200-meter snowshoe race, Kaylynn again expressed some doubt about what lay ahead.

“I can’t do this. I’m too tired,” she said.

Then, she ’fessed up about what had tired her out in the first place.

“My legs hurt because I was at a school dance and I kept jumping around,” she said.

Danny Burke of Bangor, who was competing for the Amicus Community Life team, had one of the morning’s most memorable races, and again displayed the kind of spirit that defines Special Olympics competition.

Burke, 58, fell down halfway through the race, and struggled to right himself. After more than a minute on the ground, he did so, and began sprinting again.

Then he fell again … and again, struggled to find his way to his feet.

Eventually, after pausing to catch his breath and regroup, he stood again, and finished proudly.

During his time on the ground, volunteers and fellow competitors shouted words of encouragement to him, but according to the rules, were not allowed to offer him aid.

And in the end, Burke dug deep and helped himself.

After he crossed the finish line, Burke asked his coach, Richard Bean, for his inhaler. And after taking a puff and getting his wind back, Burke explained what he’d been thinking about as he lay on the icy ground.

“[I was] trying to get back up again, and keep going,” he said.

Burke had another race — the finals — later in the day, and was ready for some lunch after a tiring race.

And his favorite part of the games?

“Hanging out with everybody else,” he said.

Over at the speed skating venue, a familiar face sat on a bench, ready to compete in her 200-meter race.

Caitlyn Gunn, 33, lives in Bangor, and has been competing at the Special Olympics Winter Games since she was 5 years old. She began skating when she was 17, and has represented the U.S. in two Special Olympics World Games, visiting Alaska in 2001 and Idaho in 2009.

Gunn sped her way through two laps around the rink at the Sugarloaf Outdoor Center, and barely seemed to break a sweat. Gunn, who has served as an ambassador for what she calls “Special O” for years, simply loves competing, and taking part in these games.

But no matter how she competes, she knows her favorite parts of the games will remain special.

“[I like] meeting new friends. Meeting new teams,” she said with a grin.

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