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By Hunter Hedenberg, guest blogger
Every Sunday afternoon, Vermont Adaptive Race Team athletes, volunteers and Coach Norm Staunton run through race gates to practice for the real deal races. The entire season culminates for most of our athletes with the Special Olympic Vermont Winter Games at Suicide Six this Saturday.
At a recent practice, Staunton stood at the top of the gates he had set and each athlete cruised over to him one by one. Over the course of two hours, each athlete had to run the gates at least five times. On a sunny and warm day like this particular Sunday, it was easy to want to be out taking runs, and some of the racers were out working hard.
Leila, an athlete who has been on the team for more than six years, practiced the course a total of nine times over the course of the afternoon. Her last run was half an hour after practice had ended.
You can see the dedication on each of the athlete’s faces as they take their starting positions at the top of the slope. As soon as they ski into the start, Staunton gives them a fist bump and brings their attention in to him to get them focused. He kept telling them, “Two. Two weeks. We’ve got two weeks left before the Games so this is it. Now is the time to get your head in the game because we’ve got a competition to get ready for.” He was met with responses of “Yeah!” and “I know. I know.”
After Staunton amps up the racers, they get into their starting positions; leaning on their poles out ahead of the gate with their body weight forward and ready to go. Stanton then calls out “Racer ready? Three, two, one, go!” In the way that they practice each week, the athletes give two powerful pushes with their poles, and then get low and ski as fast as they can through a series of gates with the Vermont Adaptive staff and volunteers cheering as loud as they can.
It’s an energizing and encouraging environment to ski in. Staunton sets up a variety of courses every week; and these racers have now been training since early January for this upcoming race. They know the structure of the Games, the technique on the start, how to get the most speed, and what to do if they miss a gate, which is pretty important. If a skier misses a gate during their race, they must complete the course or the time won’t count. It’s up to them to stop, hike back up, and run through the gate again. The Vermont Adaptive athletes know this backwards and forwards. When their coaches ask, “what do you do if you miss a gate?” every athlete answers right away with “hike back up.”
The Winter Games is the culmination of the season for the racers, but it’s ultimately not the focus of the program.
“The races are enjoyable, and Vermont Adaptive is always ecstatic if our athletes want to compete,” said Staunton. “However, ski racing comes in second to skiing. The race isn’t the point for our athletes to be out every on the slopes every Sunday. The point is to build ski skills, relationships with teammates, and a lifelong passion for skiing.
The passion for outdoor sports is the driving force behind all of Vermont Adaptive’s programs. “If the athletes do well this weekend, I’m thrilled. But as long as they make all their gates, and have a great time, I don’t care about their times. I just want to see them out there,” said Staunton.