More than 300 athletes converged on Seven Springs and Johnstown this past weekend, to compete in the 2016 Special Olympics Pennsylvania Winter Games.
Competitions, which began Sunday, run through closing ceremonies and awards on Tuesday. Events include alpine and cross-country skiing, figure and speed skating and snowshoeing at the Seven Springs Mountain Resort, in addition to the Cambria County War Memorial Arena and Planet Ice in Johnstown.
Special Olympics Pennsylvania’s Western Competitions Director Mike Ermer said the games increase the exposure of an underserved population.
“It brings athletes from across the state, and across the region, together to see their friends and they get to hang out. But then, also, they get out on the slopes or on the ice, they get to compete,” Ermer said.
Ermer said athletes and coaches from Pennsylvania, Maryland and Virginia completed eight weeks of training, prior to the games. Participants must be at least 8 years old to compete, but that’s the only requirement.
“We do not have an age limit, so they can pretty much compete until … they’re done, until they can’t compete anymore,” he said.
While the athletes can be grouped by age, Ermer said he likes to create divisions of four to six athletes, based on skill level, using times recorded in pre-competition trial runs
“There’ll be no more than, say, a 15 percent difference the fastest skier and the slowest skier,” Ermer said.
Athletes and their families stay in hotels in Donegal and Somerset, which Ermer said also boosts the local economy in traditionally slow weekday periods.
Free hearing and dental health screenings, as well as health education programs, are also available to athletes.
“We’re really trying to promote good habits, good lifetime habits of health and nutrition and exercise,” Ermer said. “It’s just another way to kind of get everybody up and moving.”