POWELL, Wyo. — For two weeks following the state Special Olympics Fall Games in Casper, several members of the Powell Panthers Special Olympic team could be seen wearing their medals in the halls of their schools.
There was a sense of pride and confidence that doesn't always come easy to students with special needs.
"You love to see when they get a medal and a smile," said Shoshone Learning Center principal Ginger Sleep.
And now the athletes should have plenty of opportunities to get more of both.
Sleep and Park County School District No. 1 adaptive physical education teacher Chris Wolff have worked together, with help from the school board and others providing special need care in the district, to continue the program in an official capacity.
The board approved during its Dec. 11 board meeting funding for a paid sponsor for Special Olympics, making it an official school activity. That sponsor, Wolff, has taken the reins as coach of the team and, along with the students, has learned the benefit the activity has had on students and staff alike.
"I think all of us that have been involved with it have found it to be extremely rewarding," Wolff said.
Wolff said he gets lots of laughs, smiles and — though he admits it sounds cheesy — tears of joy from spending time with the athletes.
While Wolff has commanded the hands-on role of coach, Sleep is providing support behind the scenes, ensuring funds are available to properly equip, feed and transport the athletes.
For the upcoming Winter Games, Powell's Special Olympians will compete in snowshoe racing. The snowshoeing event is divided into seven different distances, ranging from 25 meters to 1600 meters.
"The kids put in the work to improve and come competition time you can see the hard work first hand paying off," Wolff said.
Wolff said that there is definitely an element of competitiveness in most of the athletes at the regional and state events.
"It's kind of like their Super Bowl," he said.
But unlike many other competitions, there is no hostility between members of opposing teams.
Whether it be snowshoeing, bowling or another activity, Sleep said the healthy competition provides a positive setting where the students benefit from mutual support while displaying their skills.
"(The events create) a great dynamic where they're celebrating each other and cheering for each other," she said.
And though technically there are winners and losers, Sleep said the students are just as supportive of the opponents as they are of their own teammates.
"We just want to have fun," said Panther Special Olympian, Kenley Moore.
Jacque Fernau, Powell High School special education teacher, said providing the students with physical activity is critical, though by no means an easy task.
"It's not like a basketball game where you just go and coach," she said. "There's a lot more to it. We're looking out for what's best for each individual student."
Wolff said the difficulties are eased by community support and the help of volunteers.
"We're so blessed with wonderful help from parents and staff that are willing to put in the extra time I can't say it's challenging," Wolff said.
The student-athletes' disabilities range from blindness to autism to Down syndrome. One student doesn't speak, while others don't seem to stop. The lack of consistency makes it impossible to treat each athlete with the same level of attention and care.
Fernau knows the abilities and limits of each special needs high school student, and attends each practice.
The team last held snowshoeing practice Jan. 4 at the Pahaska Tepee trail just east of the North Fork entrance to Yellowstone. Along with Fernau and Wolff was instructional facilitator for the department of special services Dan Hunter, PHS para educator Jolyn Kawano and PHS para educator Bonnie Bruce.
The six-person teaching/coaching staff is necessary to provide the appropriate amount of support and structure for the only nine athletes practicing that day.
Fernau said snowshoeing has been an interesting challenge. The athletes need help strapping their shoes to their feet and time to get acclimated to walking in the strange contraptions.
Wolff said that he's learned patience is a must in his position. Everything takes a little longer than it should, and the team is almost always behind schedule.
But after the athletes are loaded in the district's SUVs, and after a couple pit stops along the way, and after coats are zipped up and gloves are pulled on, and after each athlete sits down while snow shoes are strapped to their boots, after all of that, does it become clear that the effort is more than worthwhile.
The cold doesn't seem to bother the bundled athletes. Nothing, really, seems to bother them. Constant chatter and visible anticipation comes from each athlete as the team is led down the trail.
Wolff walks 50 paces, turns around, and embodies the finish-line. Two racers go at a time. The first to cross the finish line, Richard Burbank, looks as determined as Michael Jordan during game seven of an NBA Finals.
For Burbank, the upcoming regional Special Olympics event in Gillette is a chance for him to repeat as a gold medalist. He took home the gold after competing in bowling during the State Special Olympics in Casper last fall.
"I was not expecting to get a gold on my first Olympic event ever," he said. "I'm hoping to get my third (gold medal) in a row."
Burbank, who said he is the first member of his family to participate in an Olympic event, exudes a confidence not atypical of the members of the Powell Panthers Special Olympians team.
When asked why she enjoyed bowling, Special Olympian Shelby Saldana responded simply, "Because I'm good at it."
Moore said it feels good to stay active while being with her friends.
"I like to exercise and I like to move my legs," she said.
Fernau said the lessons the student-athletes learn now can improve the rest of their lives.
Moore learned an important lesson about failure and the importance of not giving up, thanks to the Special Olympics program.
"I'll try harder and be the best bowler next time," she would tell herself after a poor roll during the Fall games.
Bailey Smith certainly takes on the same, "never give up," mindset. Smith fell during her first practice race, but with a little help, got right back up and finished the race with a smile.
The next day, Smith could be seen unable to contain her excitement about the next time she could get back to the mountain.
Wyoming's Special Olympics program is divided in five areas. Powell will join Area 1 which includes local programs from Cody, Dubois, Lander, Riverton, Thermopolis and Washakie County.
Area 1 Coordinator Lauren Stocchetti said she is glad Powell now has its own official local program.
"We're just thrilled, it really is such a great thing," Stocchetti said. "There's certainly a need for it. I'm just thrilled they finally have a team together."
The Area 1 Winter Games will be held Jan. 25 at the Big Horn Mountain Resort (formerly Meadowlark Ski Resort).
The following week, look out for students wearing big medals and bigger smiles.
Information from: Powell (Wyo.) Tribune, http://www.powelltribune.com