TRAVERSE CITY — Whitney Patton didn’t like snow sports. Hills made her nervous.
Yet the fluffy snowflakes that cover Mt. Holiday put a glint in her eye, and during a recent outing she rushed to wrangle her thick hair in her helmet so she could shred that fresh powder.
It’s amazing what a little encouragement and competition can do, she said.
“I like to go my own way,” said Patton. “I can do that here.”
Patton, 24, is an Olympian, one of the Traverse City’s homegrown athletes competing in the 2014 State Winter Games hosted by the Special Olympics of Michigan.
This year’s games open today and stretch through Friday at the Grand Traverse Resort and Spa, Schuss Mountain at Shanty Creek Resort and Howe Ice Arena.
The Special Olympics of Michigan Winter Games are for people with intellectual disabilities, defined as limitations in intellectual functioning and adaptive behavior.
Patton will compete for a gold medal in snowboarding on Thursday. She said that it’s all about “opportunity” for the athletes.
“The Games gives us a chance that we may not have if we had to go through the school sports teams. This is our chance to compete,” Patton said.
Area Two, which encompasses Leelanau, Antrim, Grand Traverse, Benzie, and Kalkaska counties, will send 22 delegates to the games this year.
But many more suit up and practice with the Olympians for the games, even though they aren’t official contenders.
Medals aren’t the point, said Rod Brubaker, a downhill skier and long-time participant.
“Skills, training and enjoyment” are what makes them special, he said. Plus, it’s the social event of the winter for the athletic community.
“I just like to be around everybody,” Brubaker said.
Alongside competition events -- alpine skiing, snowboarding, cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, figure skating and speed skating –- a swirl of activities are planned for the spectators. Karaoke, dancing, sledding and art are but a few offerings wedged between today’s opening ceremonies and Friday’s close.
The Wertz Warriors –- a 90-person snowmobile ride to underwrite the games and created by Former Detroit Tigers player Vic Wertz -- pulls into town today for autographs and snowmobile rides.
A local fundraising Polar Plunge takes place Saturday at the Grand Traverse Resort and Spa with a 10 a.m. registration, parade of costumes and a post plunge party.
This year’s roster of athletes tops 869 athletes from across the state – the largest number of participants in seven years, according to Special Olympics of Michigan statistics.
Another 800 or so will be chaperones and volunteers. Volunteering is an easy and deeply satisfying commitment to make, said John Michael Casteel. He was hooked after one event at his wife’s request. That was eight years ago and now he is Area Two’s volunteer director.
“You hear it all of the time, but it’s true – you get way more back than you ever put in when it comes to working with these athletes,” Casteel said.
It’s also an inspiring and exciting spectator sport, he said.
“If people haven’t ever come before, I swear that they will have as much fun as they ever had at a spectator sporting event,” said Casteel.
“Fans in the stands” are needed for figure and speed skating events at Howe Ice Arena today and Thursday.
There is no charge for events and all are open to the public.
Special Olympics Events Schedule
8 a.m. Time Trials Begin - GTRS & Howe Arena
9 a.m. Time Trials Begin - Schuss
6 - 7 p.m. Wertz Warriors Autograph Session - GTRS
7 p.m. Doors Open for Opening Ceremonies
7:30-8:15 p.m. Opening Ceremonies - Governor's Hall-GTRS
8 a.m. Finals Competition Begins - GTRS & Howe Arena
9 a.m. Finals Competition Begins - Schuss
7:30‑9:30 p.m. Closing Celebration and Victory Dance "Under the Big Top" - GTRS
8:30 a.m. Finals Competition Continues - GTRS
9 a.m Finals Competition Continues - Schuss
Games End 1 p.m.