June 07, 2020
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Hot competition on a cold day

CARRABASSETT VALLEY, Maine — On a day when wind-whipped flags snapped and when the mercury dropped to the low teens, Janna Gillespie of Calais admitted that her Special Olympics experience left a bit to be desired.

“I can’t hardly move with all the clothes I’ve got on,” the 30-year-old Calais woman said before taking her turn in the 25-meter snowshoe time trials. “I’m freezing.”

There were plenty of chilly folks among the 800 competitors and volunteers who gathered at Sugarloaf for the 41st annual Special Olympics Maine Winter Games on Monday morning.

Special Olympics Maine defines the Special Olympics program as a year-round athletic training and competition program for people with intellectual disabilities. In Maine more than 3,000 people participate in the program.

Competitors at Sugarloaf represented more than 80 Maine communities and moved between various venues to compete in specialties including snowshoeing, alpine and cross country skiing and speed skating.

Gillespie took part in the 25-meter and 50-meter snowshoe races, competing for the Frank Beckett Center team. She said the fact that she had to compete was the only thing that lured her out of a warm condo.

“I’m not an early person,” she said. “I wouldn’t get out of bed until 1 o’clock in the afternoon if I didn’t have to.”

And as for the racing … well … Gillespie was nervous, but not overly concerned about how fast she covered the course.

“I’ve got knots in my stomach,” she said, before admitting that she likes to cruise the course at a more casual pace than some other competitors.

“I don’t run. I walk. If you run, you go, ‘thwwt,’ she said, pantomiming a snowshoe racer losing the battle with gravity.

As it turned out, Gillespie did not go “thwwt.” She did walk. And after finishing her 25-meter trial, she said the trip from Calais to Carrabassett Valley was worth it.

“I’m glad to be here,” she said.

Elsewhere at the snowshoe venue, Charles Tozier and his MERT Enterprises teammate, Tony Skidgel, took turns getting competitors fired up for the race and taunting one another.

Trash talking, it seems, is fair game at the Special Olympics (as long as you high-five your opponent before and after the race).

“I am Tony Skidgel and we have the best handicapped team in the world, MERT Enterprises,” the 45-year-old Skidgel said by way of introduction.

Tozier, 38, of Bangor, didn’t debate the merits of Skidgel’s claim, but did disagree with the exact pecking order that Skidgel had in mind.

“I’m going to beat you,” Skidgel said with a smile.

“You’re going down,” Tozier replied, smiling back.

“I’m the world’s fastest snowshoe racer, Tony Skidgel,” Skidgel said. “I’m gonna beat you. I’m gonna beat you.”

Tozier turned to an observer and explained that the ongoing discussion would continue for awhile.

“We’re a bunch of trash-talkers at MERT,” Tozier said.

And despite plenty of talk, there was little agreement.

“You’re taking the silver. I’m taking the gold,” Tozier said.

Or perhaps there was room for agreement, thanks to a late trash-talking amendment introduced by Skidgel.

“You’re a black-and-white tiger,” Skidgel told Tozier. “I’m a white wolf.”

“OK,” Tozier replied, satisfied with the compromise.

Both tigers and wolves are fast, after all.

Unfortunately for both the tiger and the wolf, neither is as fast as a competitor who was added to their heat just before they toed the line in the 50-meter race.

His name: Matt Knox. He was neither tiger nor wolf.

He was more gazelle. Or cheetah. And he was untouchable.

“If it wasn’t for Matt the tall guy, I would have got first place,” Tozier said afterward.

He was right.

In the 50, Tozier nipped Skidgel for second place, and in the 100 he left the field (sans Knox) in his wake.

Before the 100, however, he did do a bit of lobbying as race officials chose the athletes for his heat.

“Whatever you do, don’t put Matt Knox against me,” he said. “He kicked my butt.”

Over at the speed skating venue, participants in the 800-meter event battled a tough headwind on the backstretch that made a long race seem even longer.

The wind seemed to tire Jake Ring, a 23-year-old athlete representing OHI of Bangor, who fell several times before skating off the track with less than a lap remaining.

After some feverish encouragement from the race starter, teammates and coaches, Ring returned to the rink and finished his race.

Later, he admitted that he had become frustrated.

“I’m not that good a skater,” he said as he warmed up at the Sugarloaf Outdoor Center.

Like many athletes, Ring was overly harsh on himself. Before fatigue set in, he did just fine.

Monday was a rough day.

And Tuesday will provide him another chance to show himself — and others — what he’s capable of.

Back at the snowshoe venue, Tozier said he likes the Olympic village atmosphere. He likes the opening ceremonies and the parade of athletes. He likes the fireworks. He even likes the traditional Monday night dance … although he wasn’t sure if he’d be cutting a rug after his busy day.

“I watch to see what kind of dance they’ll do,” Tozier explained. “Then maybe I’ll try.”

He especially likes the food that his coaches serve in the condo and the fact that for a few days a year, he’s treated like a star.

“I didn’t have to cook it at all,” he said of his team meals. “I just ate it.”

And for those who thought Monday’s weather was a bit severe, Tozier had little sympathy.

Five days a week, you see, Tozier stands outside, morning and afternoon, in weather that can be much worse than what he endured on Monday.

He hangs a bag of supplies on a nearby stop sign, withstands the rain, ignores the snow, and bundles up against the cold.

“Being a crossing guard, you’ve got to be used to the cold weather,” Tozier said before heading back to the condo, and more food, and surely more trash talking with his pal, Skidgel.

“This doesn’t bother me,” Tozier said. “It’s a winter day.”


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