More than 150 of Special Olympics Wisconsin’s hardiest athletes are currently preparing themselves for the State Winter Games, taking place in Wausau on February 8 and 9.
Snowshoers, alpine skiers, snowboarders and cross country skiers from 21 agencies across the state will be heading to one of Wisconsin’s premier winter sport cities for two days of exciting winter action. Alpine skiers and snowboarders will be flying down the slopes of Granite Peak Ski Area, one of the Midwest’s top ski resorts, while cross-country skiers and snowshoers will trek through gorgeous Nine Mile Forest, the “crown jewel” of Marathon County’s forest system and one of the most popular cross-country skiing and snowshoeing destinations in Wisconsin.
It truly will be a destination for many of the athletes, some of whom will be traveling from as far as La Crosse, Ashland or even Racine – more than 200 miles away. But for 17 athletes from the Wausau Metro Adult and Wausau Area Youth agencies, the Winter Games will be a little bit more of a backyard affair.
Wausau Area Youth will bring five snowshoers to the tournament, including 11-year-old Kallie Saal. Wausau Metro will have 12 athletes participating – nine in snowshoeing and three in cross-country skiing. For the Wausau Metro veterans, some of whom have been participating for two decades, the Winter Games home-field advantage means a great deal. “I like having Winter Games in my hometown because it means less traveling,” athlete Brian Krause said. “I don’t have to wake up early.”
While not having to travel or stay in hotels is certainly a perk, the Wausau athletes also benefit from practicing at Nine Mile Forest all winter long. According to Nate Schmidt, a cross-country skier with 20 years of experience under his belt, practicing at Nine Mile helps him know the courses well. “It’s fun. I like to ski at Nine Mile,” Schmidt said. Schmidt even visited the forest recently as a spectator to get some inspiration from the skiers competing in the popular Badger State Games.
Schmidt’s mom, Bev, who also serves as the agency manager and cross-country skiing coach for Wausau Metro Adult, says that their team gets to know the terrain and quirks of the Nine Mile Forest trails intimately, down to the way the late-falling oak tree leaves can affect performance if they get stuck in the ski tracks.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that the Wausau Metro Adult cross-country team is so in touch with their course given how much experience they bring to the table. Bev Schmidt has been coaching for nearly 20 years, while Nate Schmidt, Brian Krause, Lisa Oehlke and Lori Morien have all been skiing for nearly as long. Until this year, they made quite the formidable relay team. However, this year Morien is participating in snowshoeing to try something new.
But regardless of the sport, or the distance traveling to participate in the Winter Games, it usually boils down to many of the same things for these hardy athletes who embrace winter’s chill and enjoy the many elements of the State Winter Games.
“I like the Winter Games because I like skiing, dancing and being with my friends,” Krause said.
New Events Debuting
This year, more winter warriors will get to enjoy the thrill of winter sports during the Winter Games with the introduction of several new events. A new Unified Alpine Skiing event will debut at Granite Peak Ski Area where Special Olympics athletes will be paired with Unified partners for a competition similar to the popular X Games Unified Snowboarding that Special Olympics Wisconsin athlete Daina Shilts has competed in since 2015.
Meanwhile, at Nine Mile Forest a Unified Cross-Country Skiing Relay will similarly bring Special Olympics athletes together with Unified Partners on the same team.
And for the first time, little ones can get in on the action at the 2020 Winter Games. This year will include a 50-meter snowshoe dash for Young Athletes, who are children with and without intellectual disabilities from ages 2 – 10.
“Adding Unified elements to Winter Games brings our athletes and Unified partners new experiences and opportunities to bond,” said Erin Muehlenkamp, Director of Unified Programs. “We are hopeful that these events will not only increase Unified participation at these State Games, but overall in our programming.”
For more information on the new Unified Events at the State Winter Games and how you can be involved, please contact Erin Muehlenkamp.
If you’d like to submit a “good luck” video to the athletes of the State Winter Games that will be included in a montage video shown at the Winter Games Celebration Ceremony, click HERE.