Snow sports: These Olympic Games are special

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If you can do it, they can do it.

It might take them a little longer, they might go a little slower, but the sense of accomplishment is the same.

“They” are the more than 300 athletes who will participate in the 2014 Special Olympics Pennsylvania (SOPA) Winter Games at Hidden Valley, Blue Knob and other venues Monday and Tuesday.

Hidden Valley will welcome 175 skiers Monday from Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Delaware who will compete in giant slalom time trials, giant slalom and Super G on the Bobcat, Continental and Imperial slopes.

Blue Knob will host the cross-country and snowshoeing competition, also Monday.

The figure-skating competition will be at the Cambria County War Memorial Arena and the speed-skating events will be at Planet Ice near Johnstown. This is the 13th year Johnstown has served as the games’ headquarters.

The opening ceremonies, featuring an array of speakers and performances to motivate and entertain the athletes, will begin at 6:30 p.m. Sunday with the lighting of the Olympic Torch in Central Park in Johnstown. Award and closing ceremonies will be at each venue at 1 p.m. Tuesday.

“It is a tremendous honor to welcome Special Olympics to Hidden Valley,” said Eric Mauck, chief executive officer of Hidden Valley and Seven Springs.

“Hidden Valley has hosted the Alpine skiing competitions of this event for many years, and we look forward to continuing that tradition and doing everything we can to support this event, the athletes and the overall mission of Special Olympics.”

Mike Ermer, SOPA’s associate competition director, said Hidden Valley employees “work seamlessly with our Alpine committee to make sure the mountain is in great shape and ready for the races. They also do a wonderful job making the athletes, support staff and volunteers feel welcome.”

Ermer said the athletes spend a minimum of eight weeks training for their respective sports. “The SOPA Winter Games [serve as] a qualifying event for the National Winter Games and the World Winter Games.”

He said eight athletes from Pennsylvania competed for Team USA last year at the World Winter Games in Seoul, South Korea, two of whom were Alpine athletes who qualified at Hidden Valley.

Ermer praised the efforts of Lesley Meyer, SOPA’s Winter Games event director, and the organization’s dedicated Winter Games committee. “They have worked for months to make this event a memorable one for or athletes and their families.”

He said SOPA will present its annual Winter Games Spirit Award to the athlete who personifies the “outstanding energy, determination and enthusiasm” of the competitors. It will be presented at the Victory Dance Tuesday evening at Richland High School.

To draw attention to the games, hundreds are expected to participate in the third annual Laurel Highlands Polar Plunge at 1 p.m. today by jumping into the bracing waters of the Quemahoning Reservoir near Boswell in Somerset County.

They call it “freezin’ for a reason.” The plunge (www.PlungePA.org), a fundraiser hosted by local law enforcement, is open to the public. There is no charge for spectators who are encouraged to attend and bring their cameras to the plunge and all the other events.

And for those who have yet to introduce themselves to any of the snow sports available in southwestern Pennsylvania, including downhill and cross-country skiing, snowboarding, snow tubing and snowshoeing in the nearby Laurel Highlands, the Special Olympians have a message for you.

“If we can do it, you can, too.”

Information: www.specialolympicspa.org.

Larry Walsh writes about recreational snow sports for the Post-Gazette.


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