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Athletes participate in Special Olympics at Hidden Valley

| Thursday, Jan. 30, 2003

SOMERSET - Approximately 1,000 athletes from southwestern Pennsylvania are competing in the Special Olympics of Pennsylvania's annual Western Winter Sectional at Hidden Valley Four Seasons Resort.

The competition, which includes such winter sports as Alpine cross country skiing, giant slalom skiing (where skiers zig-zag around flags), downhill skiing, 10 meter walking and super-gliding to name a few, began Wednesday and continues today.

Rick Hensel, head ski coach for the Special Olympics, Fayette County, for seven years, breaks down the first few hours of skiing the athletes encountered:

First, they had an entry-level, 10-meter walk, which is then followed by a 10- to 20-meter glide with a three-meter drop, which is like a slope.

The athletes then go on to super-glide and practice their turn through the gates, which are the flags the skiers zig-zag around when they're in competition.

Hensel says the athletes start there to get the idea of where they have to go around the gates.

From then, the cross country competition begins. The events include 50-, 100- and 500-meter races, one-, three- and five-kilometer races, and a four-by-one-kilometer free relay.

The competition started at 1 p.m. Wednesday. The athletes and some volunteers then spent the night at Hidden Valley.

Today, the competition started again; this time at 9:30 a.m. It concludes at 1:30 p.m. with an awards ceremony in the Southridge Room and a closing ceremony at 3 p.m.

The two-day sectional will serve as a prelude to the state-level winter games, which will be held in the Johnstown area from Feb. 25 to 27. The athletes at the sectional are competing against some of the same athletes they will face next month at the winter games.

The three athletes from Fayette County have practiced a total of nine hours in the past three weeks, even in the bitter cold. As they arrived on the slopes at Hidden Valley, they continued to practice.

However, it's not all competition; it's fun and games, too.

Fayette County athlete Ron Gray is 70 years old and deaf, but he enjoys skiing so much that he makes motions with his hands and arms like he's holding poles when he's reading and wanting to hit the slopes.

"He always has a good time," says Hensel, impressed by the older skier.

Another athlete from Fayette County who's just as eager to ski is William Roebuck. Roebuck has been skiing for two years and always gets ahead of the group when walking from the lodge to the snow.

The third Fayette County athlete, Donald Mason, has been skiing for five years. He participated in events last year at Laurel Mountain Ski Resort.

"I love it," Mason says. He smiles as he looks forward to the dance that immediately follows Wednesday night's ceremony.

"It's lots of fun," says Hensel, who had a friend who was involved with Special Olympics and needed a ski coach, so Hensel volunteered. "It took off from there," he says.

New volunteers this year are students from California University of Pennsylvania.

Jesse Lasure's major is special education and being a volunteer for the Special Olympics was something he wanted to do for years. He said he never found a way until he received an on-campus e-mail about the Western Winter Sectional and the desire for volunteers.

"I just lucked out this year," says Lasure, who previously worked with such organizations like Easter Seals, but hasn't worked with anything concerning sports until now.

Parks and recreation major Kevin Blair thinks that his first year with the Special Olympics is "pretty cool." He was encouraged to get involved by people at the university.

Parks went along because he likes helping people. He helps the athletes by cheering them on and assisting them with their equipment.

About 40 coaches and volunteers from Allegheny, Blair, Butler, Erie, Fayette, Somerset, Venango/Forest, Washington and Westmoreland counties are present to assist with the Western Winter Sectional.

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