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Local athletes fine tune race form for National Winter Games

Eight of the 12-member Special Olympics Team Ontario are Collingwood, Blue Mountains and Meaford residents
The Special Olympics Team Ontario alpine racers during a lunch break from training at Blue Mountain Resort on Feb. 4, 2024. They will compete in the National Winter Games in Calgary from Feb. 24-March 2.

The local ski hills will be well-represented in Calgary later this month at the Special Olympics National Winter Games. 

Not only are eight of the 12 Team Ontario alpine racing athletes from Collingwood, Meaford and The Blue Mountains, but the whole team has been training at Blue Mountain on Sundays. 

Head Coach Sue Diggins, also a local resident, was putting the team through gate training this weekend in anticipation of the winter games coming up. She commended the Blue Mountain Special Olympics alpine team for welcoming the other Team Ontario athletes to their regular practice session on Sunday mornings. She also praised Blue Mountain for offering a spot on the hill and free lift tickets for athletes and coaches. 

"When I started ... 25 years ago ... the culture was very different than it is now," said Diggins. "Our athletes now are totally accepted on the hill, they're skiers like everybody else. When they get their skis on, they, themselves, feel like everybody else ... the general acceptance and inclusion with Blue Mountain is wonderful." 

Diggins said the alpine team will be competing in Super G, giant slalom and slalom events in Calgary during the games, which run from Feb. 27 to March 2 at Winsport. 

Margaret Lane, the coach of The Blue Mountains alpine team said many of the athletes are competitive in multiple sports including swimming, curling, baseball and basketball.

Team Ontario athlete Robin Shuter is looking forward to a return to the National Winter Games for alpine, this will be her second time, the last was 20 years ago and it was on the east coast. 

When she's at the top of the hill preparing for a race, she said she reminds herself that she's ready for it. 

"We just take a deep breath and say, 'we can do this,'" said Shuter following a quick lunch break at South Base Lodge on Feb. 4. "We know our skills, we're going to do clean runs and then we'll see what we get with our times." 

Shuter has been skiing for 23 years and her favourite event is the Super G. She also trains in martial arts. 

Shuter is legally blind/partially sighted and wears a bib on the hill to identify herself to other skiers. 

"Even though I have that disability and I have others, I just don't let it stop me," said Shuter. "If you want to do it, go for it."

Calgary will be Erin Wright's first National Winter Games for skiing, a sport she's been enjoying for eight years. She's excited to get there and glad to have teammates with experience joining her. She likes the Giant Slalom the best and wants people in the community to know that everyone has different abilities. 

The best part about skiing for Wright is "how fast you can go." 

Matthew Fields will be heading to the National Winter Games for his third time, and said he approaches the mental game with a lot of zen. 

"I don't have to really think about it, there's no mindset, you just do the race you can and the results will be the results," said Fields. "It's really about relaxing and doing the best you can throughout the days and the races." 

He trains with Team Ontario and also at Beaver Valley with the U16 and U14 teams doing their gate courses. His favourite race is the slalom, but he enjoys the technical side of all three and how the techniques cross over. In his down time, he likes playing drums and guitar. 

Both Shuter and Fields enjoy the social aspect of Special Olympics, including the reunion of friends that inevitably occurs at national-level events. 

"The other thing is hearing the yell out of the start and just going the highest speed you can ... safely," said Fields, the last qualifier prompted by his coach. 

Shuter and Fields said the crowd is awesome for the Winter Games and it adds a lot to the experience and the adrenaline rush of the race to hear so many people cheering for them. 

The Special Olympics Team Ontario alpine team includes Robin Shuter (Collingwood), Erin Wright (Collingwood), Matthew Fields (Collingwood), Kevin Lachance (Collingwood), Eddie Bunkowsky (Collingwood), Cameron Oliver (Barrie), Jamie Hall (Meaford/Thornbury), Angel Blainey (Meaford/Thornbury), Julian Hudson (Meaford/Thornbury), Carter Simpson (Niagara-on-the-Lake), Ryan Sorley (Milton), and Ben So (London). There are also four coaches that work with and travel with the team as well as a Next-Gen skier.

The athletes qualified for the Winter Games based on their scores from the provincial races at Blue Mountain Resort last year. 

To support Team Ontario in the Special Olympics National Winter Games, visit this website.

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Erika Engel

About the Author: Erika Engel

Erika regularly covers all things news in Collingwood as a reporter and editor. She has 15 years of experience as a local journalist
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