Special Olympics Winter Games draw hundreds of athletes to Seven Springs

| Monday, Feb. 8, 2016, 7:09 p.m.

With a torch relay down the slopes of the Seven Springs Mountain Resort and the lighting of the cauldron in the Seven Springs festival plaza Sunday night, the 39th Special Olympics Pennsylvania Winter Games officially began.

This year's Games, which bring together more than 350 athletes and 175 coaches from across the state, as well as a handful from Virginia and Maryland for the second straight year at Seven Springs, began Monday with preliminary events and concludes with finals throughout the day Tuesday.

“It's a chance to get these amazing people together and give them an opportunity to compete in sports that they love and have been training in for years,” said SOPA western competition director Mike Ermer. “It's really top-notch. It's a lot of fun, it's a lot of work but it's well worth it in the end.”

One of this year's athletes, 26-year-old alpine skier Alex Nickle of Westmoreland County, recited the Special Olympics athlete oath for the athletes, coaches and families in attendance at Sunday night's opening ceremonies.

“It was pretty cool. I wasn't nervous,” said Nickle, who added he has been involved with Special Olympics winter sports for 10 years. “My goal is to hopefully get a little bit faster in skiing (this year).”

South Hills resident Freddie Schoenefelt, 16, said he enjoys interacting with his fellow Allegheny County skiers and making friends at the Winter Games, but he's excited for his second year at Seven Springs for one primary reason.

“The competition, that's what,” said Shoenefelt, who competes in the super G, slalom and giant slalom and is coached by his father, Fred. “Although having fun is a good thing, I prefer the competition.”

Ermer said that while some sports like speedskating and alpine skiing are more specialized, the events in the SOPA Winter Games have seen growth across the board.

In the case of Westmoreland County alpine skiing coach Heather Komlos, growth came in the form of a reboot. When she started coaching skiing five years ago with her husband, Ben, her program didn't have athletes. This year, she brought three skiers to Seven Springs and is ready to take on more athletes in the coming years.

“We have three, and they're kicking butt out there,” Komlos said. “If they progress each year, that's great, as long as they're enjoying it.”

A focus of this year's Winter Games is athlete health and nutrition, a movement that is largely driven through the Pennsylvania Athlete Congress, which meets every other year in Harrisburg, Ermer said.

Westmoreland County alpine skier Joe Ray, 23, is his county's representative and said in addition to competing in the Winter Games, he enjoys being able to voice his opinions on what should change for future competitions.

“It's been really fun going to the meetings and hearing what other people have to say. They're my friends as well,” Ray said. “It's been an honor and a privilege.”

Andrew Erickson is a reporter for the Tribune-Review. Reach him at aerickson@tribweb.com or via Twitter @AErickson_Trib.

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