Alpine skiing coach Diane Mikulis watched as the body language of her Special Olympic athletes — including Marylander Jake Reynolds — transformed one day last month from mildly interested to awe-struck.
They had just entered Herb Brooks Arena in Lake Placid, N.Y., where international flags hung majestically from the rafters and where banners and murals honored historic athletic events. The skiers listened to a brief history of the venue and now were being told they were going to be allowed on the ice.
They grinned widely, and a smile slowly crept onto Mikulis' face, too, as her skiers restlessly and excitedly waited to descend the stairs.
Shortly thereafter, Mikulis, who lives in Glenelg, allowed the moment to sink in as she watched the Special Olympians get a chance to shoot pucks on the same surface where Team USA dethroned the men's hockey heavyweight Soviet Union, 4-3, in the 1980 Winter Olympics.
"That was awesome; that was just very impressive," she said recently. "I just walked around taking pictures, 'cause it was just so awesome to be there; what an experience. … That was quite a memory."
Mikulis and athletes such as Reynolds of Cumberland and snowshoer Jill Durbin of Rockville were in Lake Placid to prepare and train for the Special Olympics World Winter Games, which will be held Jan. 29 to Feb. 5 in PyeongChang, South Korea.
She expects to see more of the same spirit and enthusiasm at the Games themselves.
"The competition is what we aim for, in terms of their training, but it's really the experience of being there" Mikulis said. "If they win, then we want them to be gracious winners. If they're not on the podium getting a medal, we want them to understand that that's part of it, too. Sportsmanship is one of the really important values that we stress."
Durbin, a 44-year-old Montgomery County resident who has a developmental disability, will compete in snowshoeing. She's entered in the 100-meter, 200-meter and 400-meter sprints and the 4x100 team relay.
"[Jill] left cross country skiing, because she really didn't like to slide," said Durbin's mother, Nancy. "When snowshoeing became available as a Special Olympic sport, and she saw how it worked, she said, 'That's the sport for me.'"
Reynolds, a 20-year-old Los Angeles native, was a member of the Special Olympics while he lived in California, but his mother said he became more active in the competitions once they moved to Allegany County five years ago.
Reynolds was diagnosed with autism as a child, and though he has always attended mainstream schools, his language continues to make academics and socializing difficult. He'll participate in intermediate-level Alpine skiing and will race in the slalom, giant slalom and downhill events.
"He has such a great attitude," Jake's mother, Pam, said. "He never complains — you know, I could overcook his pancakes and he would be like, 'Mom, these are fine!'
"I find that so charming, that he has this wonderful, funny attitude. You know, there were days that I had to drag myself to school, but every morning, he'll be up on time, have his backpack ready to go, a good attitude, be cheerful, and I just love that. With the stuff he deals with, that's pretty awesome."
The trio will join thousands of other athletes and coaches from around the world participating in the 10th World Winter Games.
Every two years, alternating between Summer and Winter Games, the Special Olympics provide athletes who have intellectual disabilities a stage on which they can compete at a high level and an environment where effort and support are more important than always winning.
It's an opportunity valued by friends and family members of the more than 200 million people who are affected by intellectual disabilities, collectively the largest disability group worldwide.
"My husband and I just can't say enough for [the Special Olympics]," Nancy Durbin said. "It's probably been a lifesaver for our daughter. It also provided great volunteer opportunities for our other children to be involved and to know more about people with disabilities so that people become more tolerant and accepting.
"I think that's one of greatest goals is to have people accepting of all of our intellectually disabled people."
The Games showcase the athletes' talents and give them a chance to enjoy the spotlight.
"I think it's terrific, I mean, [the athletes] love seeing themselves in the paper," Mikulis said. "They just really get excited about that. They feel like their hard work is being recognized. And they do practice a lot; they work hard. They're trying to acquire skills that may be difficult for them."
As they walked around the museum at Herb Brooks Arena, the athletes saw awards, medals and mementos lining the shelves. Mikulis reminded them, however, that those are just the physical rewards of winning.
When Jill Durbin, Jake Reynolds and the other Special Olympians compete in PyeongChang, they will seek victory but will be defined by much more.
"It's a great big family — you got to love those athletes, they're something else," said Jill Durbin's father, John, a Team USA basketball coach. "They're the ones who got it right; we're the ones who got it wrong.
"When they compete, they try to win, but they don't win, [and] they're not jealous of the winner; they're happy for them. It's not like us, you know, 'I should have won.' "
Special Olympics World Winter Games
Jan. 29-Feb. 5
PyeongChang, South Korea
What: Biennial event for winter athletes with intellectual disabilitiesCopyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun