Like many athletes, Riley Jones begins each race with a mantra.
“I am speed,” he repeats to himself, quoting Lightning McQueen, a character from “Cars.”
But unlike most athletes, Riley, 12, is now a three-time Special Olympics gold medalist.
The 2020 Special Olympics Wyoming Winter Games concluded Thursday, wrapping up three days of competitive cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, alpine skiing and snowboarding.
The games, hosted by Special Olympics Wyoming, Teton Adaptive Sports and Jackson Hole Mountain Resort, feature races across five skill levels ranging from novice to expert.
Riley fell in the former category, having never participated in the Special Olympics before last week. He’d never even been on skis before this season.
But he wasn’t alone in his trials, which included cross-country and alpine skiing. His parents stood at the sidelines cheering and holding a brightly colored sign reading “Athletes Fly High” on one side and “Go Riley Jones 102” on the other.
After years of encouraging Riley to try winter sports, his mom and dad, Connie and Corey Jones, were elated to watch him enjoy the snow — and win gold.
“His teachers were really encouraging,” Connie Jones said.
His parents credit Riley’s special education teachers for his success on the Special Olympic fields and slopes. Jackson Hole Middle School special educator Morgane Van Voorst, affectionately known as “Mrs. Van,” changed Riley’s relationship with skiing.
“The two of them have clicked,” Connie Jones said. “At the beginning of the school year, she was like, ‘We’re going to get him out there and teach him how to ski.’ And we were nervous because he won’t even ride up the gondola.
“But she got him up the gondola, she got him skiing, and he is as confident as he can be. ... Now we’ll be able to take him up to the mountain to go skiing, and I can’t believe that. It was a long time coming, and we’re so excited.”
“I’m going to have to get on my snowboard again,” Corey Jones said.
Riley took home gold medals in cross-country and alpine skiing, but his parents are proud of more thn his performance in the games. They’re also beaming about his skillfulness navigating an action-packed three days.
“This is sensory overload for all of these kids, and they are powering through it,” Connie Jones said. “It makes me feel so glad for their future. They’re getting used to what life is going to be like sometimes.”
The Special Olympics Wyoming Winter Games included a torch run ceremony on Feb. 4 with opening festivities that evening, award presentations throughout the games and a victory banquet and Disney-themed dance party the evening of Feb. 5. The games concluded midday Thursday.
One of Riley’s ski coaches, Juli VanEenenaam, said she loves spending time on the slopes with the Special Olympians, having been a longtime ski buddy volunteer.
“I’ve been doing this for over 20 years because of how rewarding it is,” VanEenenaam said. “I’ll keep coming back year after year. This is all one big team.”
By the smiles and celebratory cheers it’s clear the Winter Games are a rewarding endeavor for coaches, families, volunteers and, especially, the Olympians.
As of Feb. 4, Riley had never skied competitively before. By the next day he was a gold medalist.
When asked if he wants to continue skiing, Riley smiled and said, “Forever.”