One of the guys, with Olympic ambitions
The Enterprise — Marcello Iaia
Picking up speed, Bruce Williams, 25, turns past a gate as he competes in giant slalom for adaptive alpine skiers with disabilities. Williams has learned to ski with the Adaptive Sports Foundation at Windham Mountain for three years. He and Douglas Rogers, a longtime skier in the program, live five minutes away from one another in Albany.
The Enterprise — Marcello Iaia
Monoskier Wonik Son races down the slope of Whiteface Mountain in Wilmington, competing in giant slalom for adaptive sports at the Empire State Winter Games on Feb. 8. With a pair of elbow crutches to guide and steady their path, monoskiers without use of their legs can maneuver sitting above a single ski.
The Enterprise — Marcello Iaia
Awards abound: After receiving their medals for adaptive giant slalom skiing and smiling for pictures, Amelia Smollens, Jennifer Romano, and Heather Huber, from left, hugged tightly in congratulations. The awards ceremony was held in the lodge of Whiteface Mountain in Wilmington on Feb. 8.
WILMINGTON — Athletes sat in a cordoned-off section in the back of the lodge cafeteria at Whiteface Mountain on Saturday. They slid off their boots and kept on their hats while they talked and officials tallied the results of their just-finished giant slalom runs for the Empire State Winter Games.
Bruce Williams wore a hat that looked like a frog with legs draped down over his shoulders. His friend, Douglas Rogers, sat on the circular seat of the long yellow table beside him with a box of homemade brownies to share.
The two men are from Albany and travel to a ski slope almost every weekend of the winter season. In events at the Empire State Winter Games for people with mental or physical disabilities, Adaptive Sports Foundation has the strongest showing.
In most races at the Games — held every year in Lake Placid and surrounding locations to field the best athletes in New York — competitors are strangers. Rogers and Williams live five minutes away from one another in Albany and attend parties together. Rogers has Down syndrome and Williams has emotional disregulation disorder.
Twenty-five racers come to Windham Mountain in Greene County and train with volunteer coaches in the foundation almost every weekend of the season. Fifteen of them competed in giant slalom for adaptive skiing this year, including, for the first time, a veteran of the Afghanistan War who skis with the aid of two extra, smaller skis on elbow crutches.
“Just do your best,” Rogers said inside the lodge, reflecting on the race. “Think about pride, and think of skiing that is with your friends.”
He said he waxes his skies at every race, but didn’t this time.
“I feel miracles happen,” Rogers said. “Going down the hill, it might be the real Olympics in 1932.”
Whiteface has slopes and facilities left by the Olympic games, held in Lake Placid for the second time in 1980. The first was in 1932 as the village was building its reputation as a winter sports destination. Now, it’s billed as an Olympic breeding ground. The ski jumps from 34 years ago loom above the horizon on the drive into the village.
Rogers is 39 and has been skiing with the foundation for more than 20 years. His former coach, Kim Seevers, is now the guide for Staci Mannella, a 17-year-old with limited vision resulting from achromatopsia who will be on the United States Paralympic Alpine Skiing Team at the Paralympic Winter Games in Sochi, Russia in March.
At 25, Williams has been skiing with the foundation for three years and he wants to be an Olympian, his father, Christopher Williams said. A graduate of South Colonie High School, Williams started skiing more than a decade ago, first deciding he wanted to take lessons at Maple Ski Ridge.
“In actuality,” the elder Williams said, “even though it’s called ‘Special Olympics,’ there’s actually things they do that not even regular people do, even though they call it ‘Special Olympics.’”
Rogers and Williams won Gold medals at the regional Special Olympics at West Mountain in Queensbury and will be competing in the state Special Olympics in Syracuse from Feb. 21 to 23.
Margie Rogers saw her younger brother looking through the metallic frames underneath the cafeteria tables around him. He was looking for his boots on the floor.
The athletes and their accompanying family and coaches were snacking and milling around the table where medals would be presented toward the back of the cafeteria. No podium was set up for medalists to stand on three different levels.
After coaches and other athletes’ relatives were hunting for the boots, Margie Rogers discovered a pair of black boots in the corridor just outside of the cafeteria. Her brother tried them on and confirmed they were his.
Rogers and his sister grew up in a family of skiers. Douglas learned at a young age while his sister was studying for her Ph.D. in psychology from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
“My mother raised him to be confident,” said Rogers, a professor of school psychology at the University of Rhode Island. “I think she sought out the best kind of services she could for him.”
Many athletes from the foundation’s race team had family members with them in Lake Placid, making up the audience for giant slalom on Saturday. Margie Rogers cheered and clapped with them for any of the racers crossing the finish line or when they fell and stood back up.
Being with the other racers, Rogers said, makes her brother feel included.
“You face a lot of social ridicule and a lot of social rejection,” Rogers said of being a person with disabilities, “and you don’t find that here.”
“ASF is a place that they feel completely secure,” their head coach, Mary Bozzone, said after their practice run on Friday. “A family — they’re not a team, they’re a family.”
Bozzone noted Williams’s progress, which she said has been the most tremendous this year. They were heading down Whistler, a blue, intermediate trail during their practice together.
“The whole team was cheering for him because that was the first time he got to show off in front of his teammates,” Bozzone said of Williams.
Williams won Gold in giant slalom at the NAtional STAndard Race last year, his father said, where Olympians put the medal around his neck.
“I was pretty excited and happy,” Williams said of his victory.
Rogers said he and Williams attend workshops for disabled self advocates. Rogers has been a co-chair on the Down Syndrome Aim High Resource Center self-advocacy committee. He has presented on skiing for different abilities and ages at the National Down Syndrome Congress in Washington, D.C.
“We can’t keep up with him,” said Margie Rogers of her brother. “He’s got better speed than we do.” She said her brother has a strong competitive spirit and acknowledged that their family plays fierce card games.
When Rogers doesn’t place after a race, his sister said, he can have a strong reaction, but he’s learned to be more gracious over the years.
“When you’re part of a team, you have to be supportive,” she said.
Williams is watchful of his teammates’ times, Bozzone said. He’s been more confident since NASTAR than he was earlier, she said; part of it is his team’s support, and part of it is Williams’s desire to climb up the ladder. There’s a constant back and forth between handfuls of athletes on the team.
“Most of my guys are all in the same age category,” Bozzone said. “So they’re literally competing against themselves. They’re happy for each other on how they do, and that’s something we do strive for, that there’s sportsmanship and team spirit throughout the competition. There’s not jealousy. There may be disappointment.”
In the Empire State Winter Games, the classification of the athletes is based on physical and mental assessments, and anyone who wanted to participate could. A numerical handicap is applied to race times.
The course the athletes skied for their giant slalom runs, Bozzone said, was not as steep as they are used to at Windham.
“They can do that with their eyes closed,” she said of the foundation’s team, hoping for a more advanced course next year.
Bozzone was motivated to become a teacher in Special Education District 75 in New York City having lived with her brother, who has expressive language disorder. A competitive softball player and instructor in the Adaptive Sports Program for four years, she was diagnosed with periodic paralysis in her legs, a form of muscular dystrophy.
“I live it,” said Bozzone, sitting in the group sales room of the Whiteface lodge, where the team met, after a practice run on Friday.
“Think of putting 20-pound weights on each leg and not being able to move them and all of a sudden you can’t move your legs,” she said.
Skiing, Bozzone said, brought her out of depression. She had lost enough strength in her legs that she could not ski without a guide. A fellow coach offered to teach her to “four-track,” or ski with elbow crutches attached to small skis at their ends. She says she’s “on four-wheel drive,” skiing with her hips and guided by her arm strength.
Bozzone joined the foundation’s race team. “It’s like getting up at bat, bases are loaded,” she said of the starting gate where she felt competitive again.
Rogers and Williams were awarded participation medals at the ceremony in the lodge Saturday. They stood in a row with a few other teammates and posed for pictures.
“I’m so proud of my boys,” Bozzone said as she hugged Williams and Rogers together.