Attending the 2017 World Winter Games in Austria was one of the most amazing Special Olympics experiences in my 43 years of being involved with the organization. Meeting athletes, families, and volunteers from around the world renewed my faith in humanity. Everyone I met talked about how Special Olympics has had a positive impact on their lives.
I was very lucky to escort the Florida athletes (Alan Lohr, Fernando Nunez, Michelle Canazaro, and Kerri Leonardo) to meet up with Special Olympics USA for a training camp in Vermont and again before leaving for Austria. This gave me the opportunity to get to know the Special Olympics USA athletes better.
We arrived in Vienna a few days before most of the athletes and ran into the Special Olympics delegation from Chile and participants in the Law Enforcement Torch Run from the United States. The instant they knew we were involved with Special Olympics, everyone wanted to take photos and get acquainted.
It was obvious that the whole country of Austria had embraced the 2017 World Winter Games. As we drove to Schladming, the host city to the Opening Ceremony and Alpine Skiing/Snowboarding, the advertisements for World Games were everywhere. It seemed like every little town along the drive had a billboard beside the road.
We were delighted to learn that the Special Olympics USA alpine skiing and snowboarding athletes were staying in a hotel right in the middle of town. The Olympic Village was right next door, and the Olympics Festival Stage was on the other side.
Next, we went to Graz to visit with Florida athlete Alan Lohr (competing in figure skating). Again, it was evident that he whole town embraced Special Olympics 2017 World Winter Games. All public transportation was free with Special Olympics credentials. The Messe Graz, Convention Center, Icestadium, and Main Square Graz hosted sports competitions, music, activities, awards, and so much more. Figure skating, speed skating, floor hockey, floorball, stick shooting, and demonstrations in dancing and the Motor Activity Training Program were held in Graz.
We got to see some of the USA floor hockey team from California play, some figure skating, and stick shooting. We were not able to see Alan compete, but he came home with the bronze medal for figure skating singles.
The town of Ramsau hosted snowshoeing and Nordic skiing. This was another quaint little town housed at the bottom of the Dachstein Glacier. The venue was so prepared that they had snow saved in another part of the country that they had to bring in to complete the competition. We were lucky enough to see some of this training and competition and meet several families from the USA and around the world.
I know many of you watched the Opening Ceremony that was held in Schladming at the Stadium Planai. Of course the only rain we had the whole time was during the ceremony. Rain didn’t matter to the 2,700 athletes from 107 nations – they all wanted the opportunity to walk in the stadium and be cheered on by thousands of spectators.
Going to watch the alpine skiers was inspirational. The mountains in Austria are much larger and steeper than the mountains in North Carolina (where we had trained). To think that athletes from Florida were in Austria participating in alpine skiing at the World Games made me so proud of our Broward County program. Our athletes were prepared and did an amazing job on the slopes.
Fernando Nunez captured the gold medal in the intermediate division of the alpine skiing giant slalom race and a fourth place in the slalom race, Michelle Canazaro earned two silver medals in the novice division of the giant slalom and slalom races and Kerri Leonardo rounded things out with two bronze medals in the advanced division for the giant slalom and slalom races.
At the mainstage in Schladming, there was always something going on from entertainment to awards ceremonies. Every award given was with such pageantry and enthusiasm. Even when athletes received participation ribbons for missing a gate – it was explained that they tried their best – and everyone cheered. I was so proud to see our Florida alpine skiers up on stage receiving their awards. The chants for U-S-A were some of the loudest. The announcers at the awards ceremonies were amazing and made each athlete feel special and deserving.
The Closing Ceremony in Graz Stadium Liebenau was incredible. This is where they turn over the torch to the next country to host world games. The 2019 Special Olympics World Summer Games will be held in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, in March 2019. It appears Abu Dhabi is ready to embrace inclusion for people with intellectual disabilities.
I was honored to attend the 2017 World Winter Games in Austria and proud to be a part of this great organization.
Written by: Linda Mills, County Director, Special Olympics Florida – Broward County