It’s getting close to game time.
An estimated 300 athletes eager to show off their skills, along with 135 coaches, will be coming to the region to take part in the 2014 Special Olympics Pennsylvania Winter Games.
The statewide competition is returning to the Johnstown area for the 13th consecutive year.
Opening ceremonies are set for 6:30 p.m. Sunday at Central Park in downtown Johnstown.
Athletes will gather at the Holiday Inn-Downtown and proceed to the park to participate in the festivities. The ceremony will feature an array of speakers and performances and will culminate with the lighting of the Olympic Torch.
Competition will be begin Feb. 10 and continue through Feb. 11.
There will be alpine skiing at Hidden Valley Four Seasons Resort, cross-county skiing and snowshoeing at Blue Knob Four Seasons Resort, figure skating at the Cambria County War Memorial Arena and speed skating at Planet Ice in Richland Township.
“The athletes are fired up and ready to go,” said Mike Ermer, SOPA’s associate competition director for the western region. “They love to compete and win, but it’s more about the camaraderie. They enjoy seeing their friends from across the state and spending some time with them.”
This year, athletes from over 20 counties along with those from Delaware, Maryland, Virginia and Oklahoma will participate.
“In the four years that I’ve been in this position, I’ve seen the games grow. There are more programs from out of state contacting me wanting to participate,” Ermer said.
For the eighth year in a row, Special Olympics Pennsylvania will present the Winter Games Spirit Award, which acknowledges the outstanding energy, determination and enthusiasm of a Winter Games athlete.
The recipient will be chosen by a select group of Winter Games committee members and receive the award during the Victory Dance that will be held at 7 p.m. Feb. 10 at Richland High School.
“The athletes look forward to the dance because it’s a chance to get together and hang out with fellow athletes and party,” Ermer said.
Awards and closing ceremonies will be held Feb. 11 at each venue.
The backbone of the games are the volunteers, and more than 1,000 participated last year serving in various capacities including officials, athlete escorts, award presenters and administrative support services.
Ermer said this year’s open spots filled up quickly and they’re looking good in terms of help.
“The volunteers are the lifeblood of this competition. Without them the games wouldn’t happen,” he said.
The Winter Games, which are now in their 38th year, are an integral part of SOPA’s mission of providing year-round training and competition in 22 Olympic-type sports to more than 20,000 children and adults with intellectual disabilities or related developmental disabilities.
Kelly Urban is a reporter with The Tribune-Democrat. Follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/KellyUrban25.