Athletes at Winter Special Olympics at Seven Springs enjoy friendly competition
Michael Anthony strapped on snowshoes Monday like he was going somewhere important.
He was, in fact, heading for the snow-covered hills of Seven Springs Mountain Resort, preparing to compete in the 40th Pennsylvania Winter Special Olympics.
Anthony, 56, of Greensburg has been a Special Olympics athlete since age 15. “I dedicated my life to training and to listening to my coaches. They encouraged me to train hard,” he said.
On Monday, he and 23 other Westmoreland County residents braved one of the snowiest days of the season to participate in a statewide competition that concludes Tuesday. The county's contingent included 19 snowshoe athletes, two cross-country skiers and three alpine skiers.
“Snowshoeing is definitely growing. It's a really good entry into other winter sports and it keeps them involved year-round,” said Steven Saunders of Westmoreland County Special Olympics.
In preparation for Tuesday's final competition, the athletes on Monday completed a series of time trials for the snowshoe 25-, 50-, 100-, 200- and 400-meter and the cross-country 50- and 100-meter. Some of the time trials were delayed because the heavy snowfall slowed some athletes' arrival.
Tabitha Conroy, 17, of Mt. Pleasant said she was poised to do well in the finals after completing the 25-meter in eight seconds and the 50-meter in 18 seconds. A junior at Clairview School in Greensburg, she designed the sweatshirt logo for this year's winter games and led the athletes' oath at Sunday's opening ceremony.
Although Conroy also bowls and golfs at the Special Olympics level, she said she especially enjoys snowshoeing. “You just have to pick up your feet, that's all,” she said. “It's a lot of fun, and I've made a lot of friends.”
Alex Nickle, 27, of Jeannette has been an Olympian for 14 years, competing in snowshoe, swimming, track, bowling and bocce. Although his mother, Marie Nickle, is the snowshoe coach, he said it was peer pressure that prompted him to get involved in Special Olympics.
“I like that I get to hang out with my friends, compete against my friends,” he said. “It's a friendly competition.”
Nickle spent the past eight weeks training for the snowshoe event, joining the other athletes at Hempfield Park every Thursday. “If there's no snow, we do it in the mud,” he said.
Sitting next to Nickle in the ski lodge at lunch time, Heather Sutton, 29, of West Newton said snowshoeing and other sports make her feel good. “It's fun — it gets me moving,” she said, noting that she has been an Olympian since age 14.
Participating in the Special Olympics also improves socialization, boosts self-esteem and helps athletes achieve their goals, said Marie Nickle, 51, of Jeannette. “They know their hard work paid off,” she said.
A special education teacher with the Westmoreland Intermediate Unit, Nickle got involved in the Special Olympics because of her son's disability and despite her aversion to winter weather.
“I wouldn't have known about this side of the work without him,” she said. “I love helping these kids succeed.”
Sharon Greene, executive administrator for the Arc of Westmoreland, said winning a bronze, silver or gold medal gives a sense of accomplishment and pride, which can help athletes with their individual service plans.
“They like to compete, they like to win, they like to get the gold,” she said. “For many of the athletes, it makes sense to have good health and to compete athletically. It's about what makes sense in everyday life.”
Stephen Huba is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 724-850-1280 or firstname.lastname@example.org.