CARRABASSETT VALLEY — Nearly 500 athletes gathered Monday for the opening ceremony of the 31st annual Special Olympics Maine Winter Games at Sugarloaf.

The games are dedicated to Maine Special Olympics founder Melvin “Mickey” Boutilier, who passed away Dec. 24, 2012, at the age of 83.

Winter games volunteer Lisa Bird told the athletes, volunteers and sponsors that Boutilier was there in spirit.

“The athletes come first,” she said of Boutilier’s philosophy during the 35 years he led Maine Special Olympics. “He was a teacher and taught us to believe in you,” she said.

Boutilier’s family members, including Robert Underwood of Farmington and grandchildren, Noah and Jonah Bird of Gorham, and Aidan, Caitlin and Tristan Underwood of Wilton, gathered around the Olympic flame outside the Base Lodge. Noah and Tristan held the torch to light it, officially starting the games. Bird is Underwood’s daughter.

Boutilier was a special education teacher who worked at Pineland in New Gloucester and was involved in disbanding the center to bring its mentally disabled residents into the community, Underwood said.

While he was teaching in Gorham in 1968, he took a group of students to Chicago to compete in the first Special Olympics started by Eunice Kennedy Shriver, Bird explained.

He came back and started the first Maine games in Portland. Now nearly 1,500 athletes attend the summer games in Orono, and close to 500 ski, skate and snowshoe at the winter games at Sugarloaf.

“He founded the first winter games in the entire world,” Bird told the athletes. “Games are now held all over the world. A Maine team is currently in Korea at the World Winter Games.”

The athletes arrived Sunday afternoon for a community supper provided by the residents of Carrabassett Valley, Bird said.

Two-time Olympic snowboarding champion Seth Wescott said he was excited to attend the opening ceremonies.

“It’s a joy to represent your family, friends, state and country,” he said, and wished the athletes good luck and told them to “go for the gold.”

Carrabassett Valley Selectman John Beaupre welcomed the athletes, and Sugarloaf President John Diller told them to enjoy the mountain.

Cheers, claps and whistles accompanied a Parade of Champions as teams from all over the state filed into the torch area for the noon ceremony.

Members of the Maine Warden Service and nine police departments were there to lend a hand, she said. They were among the hundreds of volunteers.

It takes more than $1 million each year to put on the games.

Nikki Chin, 27, of South China competed in four time trials. Sitting in an adaptive set of skis, she said it was fun, and she did well. A helper from Maine Adaptive Sports, Emma Carlsen, assisted her.

Chin is all over the mountain most weekends, her mother, Tammy Piper, said. She skis all winter and kayaks all summer.

Diagnosed with a brain tumor at age 9, she underwent treatment that left her with difficulty balancing her body and hearing issues. That hasn’t stopped her, her mother said. She has competed in the games for 15 years.

Rangers Troy Thibodeau and Travis Roy prepared to give her a ride up the slope, hauling her behind a snowmobile.

“It takes a lot of volunteers who give up a day of work to be there, but they (the athletes) look forward to it,” Piper said. Her husband, Kevin, helps time the athletes.

Just off the mountain at the Carrabassett Valley Academy, athletes began their time trials in snowshoeing Monday morning. A total of 186 athletes ages 10 and up competed, Special Olympics board member and snowshoe director Scott Gregory said. There are many school-age participants, but ages 30-plus make up the largest group of competitors, he said.

The games provide exercise for the participants with training starting weeks before the games. It also challenges them, he said.

A banquet, torch light parade, fireworks and dance were planned for Monday night, with closing ceremonies at noon Tuesday at the Base Lodge.

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