Manitowoc woman going to Special Olympics World Winter Games

March 29, 2016

Heidi Van Abheidi van abel MAINel rarely leaves Wisconsin. She’s never been on an airplane and doesn’t have a friend from another country … yet.

A year from now, that all will change when the 34-year-old Manitowoc woman travels 4,500 miles to Austria to compete as a cross-country skier in the 2017 Special Olympics World Winter Games.

“I’m still trying to pinch myself to see if I’m dreaming,” said Van Abel, who quickly followed up with an “Ow!” proving she isn’t.

Special Olympics — founded in 1968 to give kids and adults with intellectual disabilities a chance to participate in sports — recently announced who will represent the United States in the Winter Games. Only three athletes are from Wisconsin.

To become eligible for the World Games, athletes needed to win at least one gold medal in their ability groups at a 2015 or 2016 state competition. Van Abel earned three during this year’s Wisconsin Winter Games in Wausau.

Athletes also need to live independently and be a good candidate for travel. From there, the athletes are selected at random. Van Abel said she’s excited, and perhaps a little nervous, to represent Wisconsin in the Games.

“I guess I’ll have to shine like a star now,” she said.

Wisconsin is typically given a certain number of slots to fill on Team U.S.A. for the World Games, which are held every four years in a different country. Austria first hosted the event in 1993.

Van Abel likely will compete in the 500 meter, 1 kilometer and a relay race.

“Heidi is a very dedicated and dependable athlete in Special Olympics,” said Kristin Zollthies, Manitowoc County agency manager and coach. “She is always (eager) to take on new challenges and very appreciative of her coaches.”

In Special Olympics, any athlete who wants to try a new sport is allowed — so Van Abel did just that.

She got tired of snowshoeing and decided to give cross-country skiing a try. That was 15 years ago.

“It’s kind of my favorite sport, actually. I’m a veteran,” Van Abel said. “Winter has always been my favorite season, snow-covered trees and everything.”

To excel in cross-country skiing, Van Abel said a person needs balance, coordination, endurance and muscles.


In the summer, she’ll work on building more muscle by hiking and biking. When the snow returns, she will resume weekly practices at Point Beach State Forest and compete in another state competition with the Manitowoc County Miracles team.

“I just can’t tell you how cool (Austria) is going to be,” Zollthies told Abel. “These (mountains) are really, really tall and very snowy and really beautiful. They just go on and on and on.”

In December, Van Abel and the other Team U.S.A. members will meet their coach for the Games during a week-long training session in Vermont.

The 2017 World Winter Games are scheduled for March 14-25 in the cities of Graz, Schladming and Ramsau with 3,000 athletes from 110 countries expected to participate.

Nine sports will take place at the Games: Figure skating, speed skating, floor hockey, floorball, snow shoeing, alpine skiing, cross-country skiing, snowboarding and stick shooting.

The other two Wisconsin athletes are Kyle Robinson of Chewaumegon Bay (alpine skiing) and Daina Shilts of Neillsville (snowboarding).

More than 15,000 people are expected to attend the event, including volunteers, spectators and media.


Bob Whitehead, Special Olympics Wisconsin vice president of program services, recently attended a trial run of the World Games in Austria.

He said the athletes are in for a treat.

“Ramsau is a world-class … cross-country ski facility, so they’re very lucky,” Whitehead said. “This is a fabulous, fabulous venue.

“I wish every athlete had a chance to go to one of these things,” he added. “We take for granted as non-disabled people the ability to travel and the ability to meet friends from other places. They definitely will be exposed to different cultures.”


Before the sporting events begin March 18, Special Olympics athletes will participate in a host-town program to give them experience learning about a new culture and staying with an Austrian family and tour the area.

“That looks cool,” Van Abel said while looking at pictures of quaint Austrian villages on the Internet with Zollthies. “It looks like a whole new world.”

Facts and figures

  • The 2017 World Winter Games are scheduled for March 14-25, 2017.
  • 3,000 athletes from 110 countries are expected to compete in the event, which is held once every four years.
  • Nine sports are represented in the Games — Figure skating, speed skating, floor hockey, snow shoeing, alpine skiing, cross-country skiing, snowboarding and stick shooting. 

All about Austria

  • The Special Olympics World Winter Games were first held in Austria in 1993. 
  • The Games will be based in Graz (the second largest city in Austria and capital of Styria), Schladming and Ramsau.
  • Austria is a mostly German-speaking country with a population of about 8 million people.
  • Located in central Europe, the mountainous country is about the size of South Carolina.
  • The city of Innsbruck hosted the Winter Olympics in 1964 and 1976.

World Games highlights

  • July 1968: First International Special Olympics Summer Games held at Soldier Field in Chicago.
  • February 1977: Colorado hosts first World Winter Games with 500 athletes competing in skiing and skating events.
  • March 1993: Fifth Special Olympics World Winter Games hosted in Salzburg and Schladming, Austria. It was the first World Games held outside North America.
  • June 2003: Ireland hosts first World Summer Games held outside the United States with 5,500 athletes competing.
  • October 2012: Announcement is made the 2017 World Winter games will return to Austria.


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