Let the games begin


CARRABASSETT VALLEY – Hundreds of smiling athletes created a colorful ribbon as they passed under a large American flag during opening ceremonies Monday at the Special Olympics Maine Winter Games.

The youths – about 500 from 85 communities – streamed through the Village West Courtyard at Sugarloaf USA, each team bearing an identifying banner. During the two-day event they will participate in alpine and Nordic skiing, ice skating and snowshoeing, showing their spirit and testing their mettle.

They were joined by more than 800 coaches, chaperones, friends and family members, and between 500 and 600 volunteers.

“Guys, you have given us dreams. We seek to make them real,” said the Rev. Pam Moore of the Sugarloaf Mountain Christian community. She gave the opening prayer and set the day’s tone and event theme, Celebrating Heroes.

For many, the Winter Games were a debut experience.

“I’ve never been here before. This is my first time being away from my mom, which is really upsetting, kind of,” said 11-year-old Tayla Batchelder of Norway and the Guy E. Rowe Elementary School Tigers of Oxford Hills.

Then, beaming, and showing off her green fingernail polish, Batchelder exuberantly added, “I came in second place in snowshoeing!”

Prior to the Parade of Athletes at noon, the Tigers and several other teams had already competed in heats, which would determine their race placement for Tuesday’s finals.

At the Sugarloaf Touring Center, Molly Berry, 24, of Old Town and team OHI, racked up first-place wins in the free-skating 100-, 300-, and 800-meter ice skating events. Receiving gold three times, she basked atop the medals podium, then hugged competitors standing beside her.

Just up the road at Carrabasset Valley Academy’s snow-covered practice field beside Route 27, Norway’s Team Freedom snowshoe racers Donna Howard, 26, Becky Moody and Brenda Andrews, both 24, waited patiently to compete, seemingly oblivious to quickly falling temperatures and a brisk wind.

“We’re tough!” Howard yelled after a course organizer apologized for a delay and the chill. That made coaches Herb and Donna Kennison laugh. The attitude and enthusiasm stems partly from the team’s name.

“These kids had graduated high school, and we were forming our own team, and then 9/11 happened, and everybody was talking about our freedoms, and, because of freedom, we are able to have Special Olympics,” Donna Kennison said.

“Because we were planning for the Winter Games, Team Freedom was fitting and still is. That’s what we became, because we needed to show our American spirit,” she added.

Spirit and a fundraising effort that brought in more than $1 million, so the games could continue, both play huge roles in the event.

“The one thing that really stands out to me is there is no more refined spirit of competition than Special Olympics,” said Mark Capano, director of sports and support services for Special Olympics.

“It gives the kids a chance to shine,” Tigers coach Helen Manjourides of Norway added. “It’s just been a wonderful experience.”

Special Olympics President Phil Geelhoed of Poland summed it up.

“When we come, time stands still and everyone pays attention to us, and, we couldn’t duplicate this at any other place,” he said of the scores of volunteers from CVA, Sugarloaf, and the Carrabasset Valley area.

“I get great satisfaction after months of planning and working strategy when this group of people have the time of their lives. That certainly is the greatest reward one can have,” he added.