Special Olympics Iowa kicks off Winter Games in Dubuque - KWWL - Eastern Iowa Breaking News, Weather, Closings

Special Olympics Iowa kicks off Winter Games in Dubuque

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Monday marked the start of the 28th annual Special Olympics Iowa Winter Games, meaning more than 1,000 people are in Dubuque this week to ski, skate, snowshoe and support the athletes.

400 athletes, 200 coaches and chaperones and 300 volunteers, plus friends and family members, are taking part in this annual event, which runs Monday through Wednesday.

Many athletes participated in time trials Monday to determine their position for Tuesday's competitions.

Speed and figure skaters are at the Mystique Community Ice Center, skiers are at Sundown Mountain Resort and snowshoers are at Camp Albrecht Acres.

Hal Pittman is Special Olympics Iowa's president and CEO.

"We segment the athletes into both age groups and ability levels, so some that have a more severe disability will end up competing against those that have similar types of disabilities, and that's the way we make it fair," he said Monday afternoon at the ice center.

Kathy Irving is the organization's director of athlete initiatives and has been part of Special Olympics Iowa for 25 years.

"I feel the same as I did when I started," Irving said, in between time trials for the speed skaters.

She said she thinks the Special Olympics athletes are the best people.

"They teach us every day to be a better person, to be accepting of who they are and of each other and of us," Irving said. "They love you unconditionally. There is no pretense about them. They are exactly who they are."

All of the Special Olympics Iowa athletes have an intellectual disability, but Irving said that doesn't hold them back from giving their greatest effort.

"Just because you have a disability doesn't mean you can't do it. A mental disability doesn't mean you can't skate," she said.

As an example, she pointed to speed skater John Andrews, from Carlisle.

"John is one of our best ice skaters we've ever had in Special Olympics," Irving said.

In the time trial, he skated 300 meters in 58.8 seconds. That's three standard ice rink laps in just under a minute.

Over at Sundown Mountain Ski Resort, nine-year-old Emilie Heick from Durant warmed up for her first ever Special Olympics Iowa Winter Games.

"I went down the hill and I did really good," she said, with a confident smile.

Statewide, Special Olympics Iowa has nearly 11,000 athletes competing in 23 sports throughout the entire year.

"They're so positive. They're not afraid to try to new things," Irving said. "They just want to do it."

The Winter Games are good for athletes, but the event is also good for Dubuque.

Keith Rahe is president of Dubuque's Convention and Visitors Bureau. He said Dubuque's tourism season typically stretches through October, so any event like this, which brings hundreds of people to the key city during the tourism "off-season," is great for the local economy.

Rahe estimated the Special Olympics Iowa Winter Games has a positive economic benefit of between $200,000 and $250,000.

"(Dubuque) is the location within the state that has not only the ideal venues to be able to do these events for downhill skiing or whatever, but also great sponsorship," Pittman said. "Great corporate sponsors and great community involvement."

On Monday afternoon, the Dubuque Racing Association presented Special Olympics Iowa with a check for $25,000. All Special Olympics athletes always compete free of charge.

The games officially kicked off Monday night, with the opening ceremonies. Dubuque mayor Roy Buol and council member Ric Jones addressed the hundreds of athletes, coaches and supporters gathered. The lighting of the flame was followed by dinner and a dance at the Grand River Center. Many athletes are staying at the Grand Harbor Resort and Waterpark in the Port of Dubuque.

Special Olympics Iowa is in its 44th year. This marks the 28th year of the Winter Games, and every year those have been held in Dubuque.

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