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Pagosa’s Special Olympians take to the slopes

Weekend before last, in jackets of royal blue and jet black, the Pagosa Springs Special Olympics team hit the slopes for the first time this season.

Their goal: make it back to the state competitions for the first time in two years.

Their oath: “Let me win. But if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt.”

“Each athlete has their own goals to work toward,” local Special Olympics coordinator Joanne Irons said. For the four new skiers this season, Irons says the goal is to go on the Nova run.

Reaching the goals set, Irons explains, is as much for the team as for the athlete.

“It’s important for the athlete to feel growth,” Irons says.

For the winter season, the 14 athletes on Pagosa’s team will compete in skiing, snowshoeing and, for the first time in Pagosa’s history, snowboarding.

This year will be Christopher Brown’s first time to not only compete in snowboarding, but to snowboard at all. According to Irons, Brown has been comfortable on skis and competed many times. This is his goal, and the team is supportive.

“We are like a big family,” Irons says, and the support of the family is essential in prodding on athletes, coaches, parents and volunteers in persevering to achieve their goals.

For the athletes to accomplish the goals set requires discipline, endurance, strength, patience with themselves and a spirit of competitiveness. Special Olympics enables children (over 8) and adults with intellectual or physical disabilities to compete on an equal platform, and the competitive element is key.

Irons recalls one of her first experiences with Special Olympics. Her son, Zack, started participating in swimming; his stroke, freestyle. He won regionals and then it was off to compete at state. After his heat, Irons recalls looking up at the scoreboard. Zack had lost only by one-one hundredth of a second.

“That was an eye opener,” Irons says. “The athletes compete following the USA swimming rules, and win and lose just like anyone else.”

Zack, Irons says, was happy to win silver, to accept the medal and stand there on the podium, and then she adds, wouldn’t anyone be happy? Wouldn’t competing well and earning a medal make anyone feel more confident?

“It’s more than just being together in uniform. It’s about fulfilling the needs of the athlete,” Irons says.

Her son, for instance, will be attending college next year. A former athlete, Nick Saunders, competed at the state level in both swimming and skiing. After high school, Saunders joined the Marines.

After working with Special Olympics for the past nine years in Pagosa and raising her son, Zack, Irons says her perspective on life has changed.

“Every day of life is good moments. I see how hard it is for some kids to stand up in ski boots; some take years to overcome some of their fears. I forget how hard it is and see that I take so much for granted,” Irons says.

February 18 marks the southwest Colorado winter games. To prepare for the regional competitions, the athletes will go to Wolf Creek Ski Area five times to sharpen their skills. Every Saturday until the regional competition, Irons says the whole team goes snowshoeing. They’ll eat, go snowshoeing somewhere around town or in the forest, and maybe tie in some other fun event.

For those athletes who make it to state, the competition will be held in Copper Mountain on March 3.

Special Olympics, in addition to winter sports, has activities all year round. Swimming, softball, horsemanship and bowling are also offered. If anyone is interested in volunteering, call Joanne or Karl Irons 264-5030 or 946-7545.

Irons also wishes to thank their sponsors, Pagosa Ski Rentals and Wolf Creek Ski Area.

For more information about Special Olympics in this area, go to the website,

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