The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

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February 13, 2013

Cross-country, snowshoe competitors hit the slopes

CLAYSBURG — Icy conditions didn’t make for an ideal day on the mountain, but that didn’t keep everyone indoors.

As Special Olympics Pennsylvania Winter Games continued Tuesday, 85 cross-country and snowshoe athletes from Pennsylvania, Maryland and Delaware took to the slopes at Blue Knob All Seasons Resort for one last shot at taking home some medals.

“Everyone comes and tries to do their personal best,” said Jim Binz, Western Region Field Director with SOPA. “They get out there and show off their skills and have a great competition.”

Snowshoe offered races in 25 and 50 meters for entry level and 100 through 1,600 meters for those more advanced. There also was a relay event.

Those doing cross-country skiing participated in entry and intermediate competition with varying distances and a relay.

Athletes were grouped by age, gender and ability level throughout the competition.

“We see a lot of the same athletes coming back each year because cross-country and snowshoe are easier to learn and are life sports,” Binz said.

Andy Sambol, 33, has been participating in the winter games for more than 10 years and recently returned from the Special Olympics World Winter Games in Seoul, South Korea.

“I like being out there and getting exercise,” said Sambol, who is a member of the Somerset County team. “I like being around people and being social.”

He came home with a gold, bronze and fourth-place ribbon from the world games and said it was a great experience.

“I was really excited and shocked because I didn’t know what to expect, but it was a lot of fun,” Sambol said.

Debra Niemiec, head of the Somerset County delegation, said they brought two cross-county and two snowshoe athletes to this year’s games.

“We start practicing every Saturday after Thanksgiving and, even if there isn’t snow, we do conditioning work,” she said.

Niemiec has been involved with Special Olympics for many years and said the rewards are many.

“I’ve learned so much from each athlete and they are athletes and we treat them like that,” she said. “We want them to have enjoyment for the sport.”

In addition, Donny and Laura Penrod, a married couple with the Somerset team, were the recipients of the 2013 Winter Games Spirit Award, which recognizes outstanding energy, determination and enthusiasm.

The award was presented at the Victory Dance that was held Monday at Richland High School.

Other events held Tuesday included speed skating at Planet Ice, Alpine skiing at Hidden Valley Four Seasons Resort and figure skating at Cambria County War Memorial Arena.

The games concluded Tuesday with awards and closing ceremonies.

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