Gary Endecott trained for weeks to prepare for his ski competition.
He worked out in the gym over the summer. He skied weekends. On Thursdays this winter he donned a Jackson Hole Mountain Resort host jacket — his first year in the signature red coat.
He’s no stranger to the mountain, the sport or the Special Olympics Wyoming Winter Games.
Endecott has been on skis since he was a kid. Now 29, he has competed in the Special Olympics state games for the past decade. He runs the slopes as a Level 3 competitor, the most advanced division in the Special Olympics.
He’s also no stranger to the podium, where he stood three times over the two days of competition, collecting golds for his heat in slalom and super G, and a silver in his heat for giant slalom.
“It’s awesome,” Endecott said after Thursday’s giant slalom run, which the 29-year-old described as “powdery, groomed and very cold.”
“I enjoy every bit of it,” he said.
The best part, though, for Endecott and many of the 200-plus competitors is meeting other athletes from across the state.
“We get to hang out with all the people from different towns,” Endecott said.
‘True sporting competition’
Jackson Hole has long hosted the Special Olympics Winter Games, inviting athletes from the five areas across the state to face off on Jackson’s steep slopes. This year the athletes raced courses off the Sweetwater Gondola and Apres-Vous and Teewinot lifts, competing in “glide events,” the lowest level of competition, to the highest, Level 3, said Dan Lang, director of field services for Special Olympics Wyoming.
“It’s a true sporting competition,” he said. “They train for months leading up to the games.”
To qualify, athletes compete in area games, a downsized version of the statewide competitions. There are five areas in Wyoming; Jackson athletes are part of Area 2.
The athletes typically represent a specific local team, hailing from programs through C-V Ranch, Community Entry Services, Jackson Hole Therapeutic Riding Association, Teton County Schools Primary, Teton County Secondary and the Timberwolves. But Special Olympians can also compete under Teton County Indy, an independent division.
Coaches, many of whom are volunteers, work with competitors weekly, if not more frequently, helping them learn the skills needed not just to take to the slopes or the track, but to be competitive.
“My favorite thing about the whole thing,” said Shane Braman, coach and Teton County School District Special Olympics coordinator, “is the first time a kid actually skis independently.
“That’s the best feeling there is for me,” he said. “You have kids who go from that … to now actually competing.”
The road to the Winter Games is largely supported by local organizations, including Jackson Hole Mountain Resort, which donates ski passes and equipment to the athletes; the school district, which foots the travel bill; and Teton Adaptive Sports, which supports the athletes’ training.
The athletes, in turn, often end up giving back to the program, like Mycah Miller, who works as an assistant ski instructor with Teton Adaptive Sports.
She’s been skiing since she was 3, competing since she was 8, and the best thing she learned in her own ski training is, “When you race, you go fast and you point them.”
Performance at the statewide games — there are four over the course of the year, the Winter Games, Summer Games, Summer Sports Classic and Fall Tournament — qualifies athletes for the World Games. Those who take a gold in a statewide game are entered into a raffle to head to the World Games.
“We afford the same opportunity to everybody,” Lang said.
Local Special Olympians have been plucked from the hat, so to speak, several times: Endecott was chosen for the 2017 Special Olympics Winter World Games in Austria; Sean Stone headed to Idaho for the 2009 games, and Mona Sobieski and Alex Moreno flew to China in 2013 to hit the games.
Athletes can begin competing as young as 8, and can return as long as they like, Lang explained. Some have competed in the games since Special Olympics Wyoming began 41 years ago. The Winter Games have been around for the past 40 and have always called Jackson home, he said.
Together on and off the snow
Outside the white tent, the Special Olympics Flame of Hope burns. Though Jackson has been home to the winter games since they started four decades ago, 2019 was the first year the town hosted the flame, said Carolyn Burke, mother to 19-year-old competitor Brendan.
The flame was initially escorted from the Visitors’ Center to Town Square by a small pack of runners, four Special Olympians flanked by Jackson police. Preceding the games, the Law Enforcement Torch Run raises awareness of the games and those who compete in them.
Those with intellectual or developmental disabilities — which is becoming more commonly described as “differently abled” within the community — qualify for the games, Burke said.
Part of the draw of the games, competitors and parents said, is the opportunity to be involved.
“I think the thing a lot of people don’t understand is how much these kids thrive on just being able to have a venue where they can participate,” said Kevin Burke, Brendan’s dad. “They’re just like any other kid in that respect — they want to get out there and compete and have fun.”
Meeting kids and adults who are “just like him” is part of the draw for Brendan, Kevin Burke said.
His son, for example, while competitive on the slopes, is often most excited about the social activities that come with the games — the opening ceremony dinner, the dance, group lunches.
Before the midday medals ceremony Thursday, music started pumping in the tent as Crazy Tom prepared to announce the winners of the morning alpine skiing activities.
As soon as the music starts, Special Olympians, including 21-year-old Connor Clark, take to the floor, throwing up their hands to the beat.
“Obviously Connor is the best dancer,” said Marcia Clark, Connor’s mom.
Connor is a Level 2 skier who competed in alpine skiing and took home a gold medal in his heat, and he’s always most excited about the evening dance. But training for the events — or the other sports he competes in, basketball and golf — has helped him direct his energy.
“I think he’s become more disciplined, more focused,” Clark said. “He has better social skills — it’s a real competition.”
As is being able to interact and compete alongside those who are different. Special Olympics has made strides toward inclusivity, creating more opportunities for Special Olympians and their peers to interact. One such path is via unified teams, where Special Olympians play and compete with those not in the program.
In the Winter Games, for example, which feature alpine skiing, snowboarding, cross-country skiing and snowshoeing, athletes and peers can compete on unified teams in snowshoeing.
“Special Olympics is all about inclusion,” Kevin Burke said. “Inclusion is a big piece of everything they’re trying to do.”
Some friendly competition
“Hey man, quit hogging the whole bench,” Kevin Burke said to Endecott as he plopped down at a picnic table inside the Special Olympian tent.
The friendly jab is one Endecott is used to, having competed alongside Burke’s son, Brendan, for years.
While the two men compete in the same events at the same level, and even ran alongside one another for the Law Enforcement Torch Run, the competition is always friendly, Endecott said.
They ski together on weekends, and cheer one another on. Endecott is quick to lend a hand to a fellow athlete when it’s his turn to climb up on the red podium to collect a medal, and he was excited to share with others that Brendan Burke would be traveling oversees to represent Special Olympics in a few weeks.
“It’s still pretty friendly,” Endecott said.
But while friendly, the competition and self reflection are serious undertakings. Sammi LaBounta, 24, was proud of her medals, but was disappointed in a fall she had on course Wednesday (she put off an X-ray to keep competing Thursday). Asked if she feels excited when competing, 35-year-old Miller, wearing a gold metal, said, “Um, yes. I do.”
Brendan Burke, though more quiet than some of his Olympian counterparts, was as quick to reflect upon his performances, homing in on what he’ll work on for the next season.
“I felt I could do a bit better,” he said Thursday.
He won a gold in his heat in GS, and silver in his heats in slalom and super G.
For now he’s more focused on lacing up his running shoes. Though he won’t compete in the games themselves, Burke is set to carry the torch for Special Olympics — literally — as one of the stewards of the flame in the March 2019 Special Olympics World Games in Abu Dhabi.
He’s ready for his first trip overseas, has his travel plans and passport ready. Also ready to go is his torch run hockey jersey, a piece he wore when running alongside local police to the Town Square on Wednesday (and one he wears just because he really likes it).
“The Winter Games is the torch run for me,” he said.