Snowshoe team trains in all conditions to get ready for Special Olympics Winter Games

Snowshoe team trains in all conditions to get ready for Special Olympics Winter Games

  • Chris Walti competes in the 100 meter at Hoffman Estates High School earlier this month. His team will send nine athletes to the Winter Games next month at Chestnut Mountain in Galena.

    Chris Walti competes in the 100 meter at Hoffman Estates High School earlier this month. His team will send nine athletes to the Winter Games next month at Chestnut Mountain in Galena. Courtesy of Special Recreation Association of Central Lake County

 
Posted1/21/2020 6:00 AM

They call themselves the Crusaders and they love the sport of snowshoeing, whether there's snow or not.

At the Special Olympics regional snowshoeing tournament earlier this month at Hoffman Estates High School, the team took first in 13 events and will send nine athletes to the Winter Games next month at Chestnut Mountain in Galena.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

In all, team members represent the communities and park districts the Special Recreation Association of Central Lake County serves, including Grayslake, Hawthorn Woods, Lake Zurich, Libertyville, Lincolnshire, Mundelein and Vernon Hills.

Leading the Crusaders was the relay team of Mallory Marvin, Eric Haderlein and Chris Walti of Libertyville, and Katie Ulwelling of Mundelein, who took home two gold medals. Together, they offer a glimpse into this unique sport and what it takes to excel in it.

Coach Kelly Smith and Katie Ulwelling taking a victory selfie after Katie won gold in the 100 meter race at the Special Olympics regional snowshoeing tournament earlier this month at Hoffman Estates High School.
Coach Kelly Smith and Katie Ulwelling taking a victory selfie after Katie won gold in the 100 meter race at the Special Olympics regional snowshoeing tournament earlier this month at Hoffman Estates High School. - Courtesy of Special Recreation Association of Central Lake County

Their head coach, Kelly Smith, sums it up this way: speed and hard work.

"We have successful athletes who have autism, Down syndrome, and cerebral palsy. All disabilities, really," Smith says. "But once a person has the snowshoes on, we can generally get them comfortable walking in a few minutes, and running within the first practice."

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Haderlein is a newer, younger member of the Crusaders snowshoers, Smith says. While he is somewhat quiet, his teammates enjoy his humor and his energy.

"His best snowshoeing attribute is his speed," Smith says.

Marvin joined the team this year to be closer to Haderlein, her good friend. Smith says she works hard at practice and brings another talent to the team: her skiing ability.

The 2020 4x100 relay champs take a victory photo at the Special Olympics regional snowshoeing tournament earlier this month at Hoffman Estates High School.
The 2020 4x100 relay champs take a victory photo at the Special Olympics regional snowshoeing tournament earlier this month at Hoffman Estates High School. - Courtesy of Special Recreation Association of Central Lake County

Walti works on the grounds of Lambs Farm in Libertyville, where apparently he's been holding out on his co-workers.

"He is incredibly fast in his snowshoes," Smith says. "Some say he's faster in snowshoes than running shoes. He's quite a phenomenon."

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Rounding out the group is Ulwelling, who joined with her co-worker at the Libertyville Jewel, Katie Millar. Both are team leaders, Smith says, and they compliment each other. Millar is a distance specialist while Ulwelling is a sprinter, making her perfect for a relay team.

Maggie Filipiak takes a moment of rest at practice. She is a member of the Crusaders team from SRACLC, which took first in 13 events and will send nine athletes to the Winter Games next month at Chestnut Mountain in Galena.
Maggie Filipiak takes a moment of rest at practice. She is a member of the Crusaders team from SRACLC, which took first in 13 events and will send nine athletes to the Winter Games next month at Chestnut Mountain in Galena. - Courtesy of Special Recreation Association of Central Lake County

Snowshoeing has been a staple winter sport for area Special Olympians for nearly 15 years. Formerly, the regional event took place at Bartlett Hills Golf Course, before it moved to Lambs Farm. Hoffman Estates High School has hosted it the last two years, where athletes race in a large loop.

"This year, it was incredibly slippery and muddy," Smith says, "which made for a messy and interesting competition."

Athletes began training in Hawthorn Woods 10 weeks before the competition, and in all types of conditions.

"We like to call it all-weather-shoeing," Smith says. "Snow or no snow, rain or shine, sunlight or dark. We make it work and have fun.

"Beyond exercise and fresh air," she adds, "it teaches sportsmanship, camaraderie/social skills, and confidence."

Julie Sage cheers on a teammate at the Special Olympics regional snowshoeing tournament earlier this month at Hoffman Estates High School.
Julie Sage cheers on a teammate at the Special Olympics regional snowshoeing tournament earlier this month at Hoffman Estates High School. - Courtesy of Special Recreation Association of Central Lake County

Smith was an athlete herself in high school and she loves all winter sports. But she was drawn to the sport of snowshoeing for its versatility.

"Yes, we work on speed, endurance, and technique at practice, but we can also play just about any active game in snowshoes," she adds, "and make that a beneficial part of our training."

When she's not training the Crusaders, Smith serves as the superintendent of the Special Recreation Association of Central Lake County. She coaches the team with Kelsey Delahunty, a special-education teacher from Grayslake, as well as students Anushka Hebbar from Vernon Hills High School and Emily McHush from Carmel Catholic High School.

Next up for the Crusaders and their coaches is the Winter Games in Galena, where they will be among 400 athletes competing in Alpine skiing, cross-country skiing and snowshoeing. The Games open Feb. 4 and run through Feb. 6.

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