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Notes from Nagano, Japan
More than tears: Athletes offer inspiration
(Editor's note: Bonnie Kahn is one of about 300 Team USA athletes, coaches and support staff participating in the Special Olympics World Winter Games in Nagano, Japan. A cross country skiing coach, Kahn also is a physical education teacher at Tomahawk Elementary School.)
By Bonnie Kahn Team USA Special Olympics coach Tomahawk Elementary School teacher
On Wednesday, Carolyn Voelkers had another chance to shine in the 7.5k race. I thought back to all those training days we had in Athens, at Levis Mound and Thorp. She worked so hard for this opportunity.
The Russian girl in her division is an awesome skater, but you know that didn't really matter. Carolyn skied with the best in the world.
Those of you, who know me well, know that I was in tears as soon as Carolyn started her race. She came out on fire.
Only a few coaches are allowed on the course during competition and I had a choice location.
I think I mentioned how hilly/mountainous the course was. Well, halfway through her first 2.5k lap, she fell, got up and fell again. We could see her but couldn't do anything.
After that, her technique fell apart. Coming down a large hill with a corner on the course, she fell again. We have radio contact throughout the course, so we know what's going on.
When she went by us, I told her how proud we were of her. She smiled, got back her skating technique and kept going.
During the second lap, we realized she was sitting pretty well.
Russia was way out ahead, but Carolyn was ahead of Finland, although not by enough to make up the 30-second start interval.
Going strong into the second 2.5k lap, she was 17 seconds ahead of Finland.
Her third lap started and she looked confident again. It looked like she pulled ahead a bit.
With 1k to go, she was 25 seconds ahead of Finland, but well behind Russia.
She climbed by me again and was still smiling.
I told her she had to get more distance between herself and the girl behind her.
Skiing hairpin loops down the hill she entered the Olympic Stadium. I'm not sure what happened in that home stretch, but knowing Carolyn, she reached way down inside and pulled out whatever it took to beat Finland by two seconds.
That took unbelievable guts and determination and months of training. The other Wisconsin coach (Steve) came over to me and practically picked me up off my feet. We were both crying.
We threw on our skis and skied back to the finish line. Carolyn was already in the awards tent, where coaches can't go.
Lucky for us, though, some of her family members were they. Hugs and tears were flying.
Once again, Carolyn Voelkers, of Thorp, Wis., amazed everyone. From the doctors at the Marshfield Clinic who performed a risky surgery eight years ago to help make Carolyn seizure free, to her sisters, who worked so hard to help train her for these Olympics, to Steve Meurett, from Neillsville, who knows everything there is to know about skate skiing, to Betty and Gib, who always told Carolyn she should follow her dreams.
One of her dreams came true in Japan and I was glad I could be there to see it happen.
Team USA was wild when Carolyn took to the medals stand. She made all of us so proud.
Coach Meurett and I finally got to connect with her by the fence after the awards ceremony and had one of the longest three-person hugs ever. We all cried.
It was one of those moments in life where you know you will never forget.
Carolyn told us how glad she was that she decided to learn to skate ski. She said, "You never really know what you can do until you try."
What a smart girl.
'One of the most courageous athletes I've ever met'
I also had the opportunity to work with one of the most courageous athletes I've ever met - Andrew Beyel, from New York.
On Monday, while he was skiing the training course for practice, there were six Russian skiers skiing the wrong way. He couldn't avoid them, so he took a fall injuring his shoulder. The team doctor took him into Nagano for x-rays. Fortunately, nothing was broken or dislocated, but Andrew still had an extremely sore shoulder.
He had one day off and then came the 10k race. Although his shoulder was recovering, Andrew's shoulder wasn't 100 percent. (Where is Josh Ice when you need him?) He had a great start, but half way through the race, he fell on one of the steepest hills re-injuring his shoulder.
So, what does he do?
He had 5k left to go (that's three miles to you non-metric folks) and he skied the rest of the race using only one pole, because at the time, he couldn't move his shoulder at all.
Can you believe that?
We watched him ski into the stadium and trying to sprint to the finish line using one arm when he normally does a kick-double-pole was inspiring.
Tears were running down his face as his teammates and coaches surrounded him at the finish line.
Wait! There's more.
Friday was the 4x1k relay race. Andrew is on the Team USA #1 relay, which happens to be my team. He talked to me about skiing without poles at all and I told him, "No!"
He was my starter and I wasn't able to switch and put in an alternate or change the order of the relay at that time.
I talked to the other three relay members about Andrew's injury and how much harder they would have to ski if they wanted to medal.
We started our exchange warm-ups and during the tag between Andrew and Carolyn, their skis got tangled up and Andrew went down on his bad arm. Now he is in serious pain again, but he pleads with me not to scratch the team. He said he would go out and do his best.
At the start of the race, there's a mass start with 14 other skier. I look all over for Andrew only to catch sight of him near the front in third place. He was double-poling using his bad shoulder and just "givin' er."
He skied the whole race pushing himself. The other three skiers skied the best race of their lives and, you guessed it - Team USA brings home another gold medal.
Andrew was on the podium with tears just running down his face. I found him afterwards and told him that he is the bravest person I have ever met.
He gave me a hug and sobbed while I held him. That was the highlight of my day.
Saturday, we packed up and moved into Nagano, where the closing ceremonies took place. Then we went to the Air Force base to fly out Sunday.
The tears are starting, especially with the athletes. They are beginning to realize all that they have accomplished while they were in Japan. They became very close to the other athletes and coaches and know that they may never see them again. So, you just hug them and tell them everything will be okay. Then you turn around and walk away so they can't see you crying.
It sounds like all we did in Japan was cry. It wasn't.
It was so huge and emotional in Japan - it's hard to explain unless you've experienced it.
I know for myself a part of me now belongs to the 31 athletes and seven coaches who I lived with for the last two weeks and that each and every one of them touched my heart.
I'm not sure how it has changed me, but I know life will not be the same.
We call it the "Special Olympics Hangover." It stays with you for a long, long time - at least until the next big Special Olympics' event.
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