Steamboat Springs Special Olympian Scott Bjorgum takes a run Saturday at Steamboat Ski Area. Bjorgum is one of about 40 special needs athletes, who, along with 50 volunteers, have spent the past eight Saturdays at the ski area.

Photo by Matt Stensland

Steamboat Springs Special Olympian Scott Bjorgum takes a run Saturday at Steamboat Ski Area. Bjorgum is one of about 40 special needs athletes, who, along with 50 volunteers, have spent the past eight Saturdays at the ski area.

STARS on the slopes

Program teams volunteers, skiers for recreating on Mount Werner

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Steamboat Springs Special Olympians, from left, Seth Sobeski and Scott Bjorgum and ski instructor Charley Phelan finish a run Saturday at the Steamboat Ski Area.

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From right, Steamboat Springs Special Olympian Scott Bjorgum, his mother Leslie, ski instructor Charley Phelan, Special Olympian Seth Sobeski and his mother Ann Sobeski load the Christie Peak Express lift Saturday at the Steamboat Ski Area.

— Almost every Saturday since mid-January, Seth Sobeski and Scott Bjorgum have strapped on their skis and hit the NASTAR racecourse at Steamboat Ski Area.

Working with ski area instructor Charlie Phelan and volunteers with Steamboat Adaptive Recreational Sports, Sobeski got to fine-tune his racing technique, and Bjorgum got to practice his turns for seven Saturdays this season.

Riding the gondola to take a warm-up run down Vagabond before getting to the Bashor race gates Saturday afternoon, Sobeski and Bjorgum said they've enjoyed the chance to train but that the STARS Saturdays aren't all about preparing for competition.

"Sometimes, we do go skiing for fun," Sobeski said. Sobeski has been competing in the Special Olympics for close to 15 years, and Bjorgum started racing when his family moved to Steamboat Springs three years ago. They enjoy racing, but Bjorgum was quick to recite the Special Olympics motto: "Let me win. But if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt."

"Sometimes you win, and sometimes you don't win," he said. "Sometimes you go ski and get outside and have some fresh air and have fun with your team."

Under the umbrella of STARS, the Steamboat Springs winter Special Olympics team has grown from two athletes in 2007-08 to seven athletes in 2008-09.

"We hope this is the start of a larger program," Special Olympics volunteer and parent Leslie Bjorgum said.

Volunteers of all kinds

STARS, a volunteer-led nonprofit group that works with the Steamboat Ski and Snowboard School, has partnered for the first time this winter with the Horizons Specialized Services 32nd annual Ski and Winter Sports Program. The program caters to Alpine skiers, snowboarders, snowshoers and adaptive skiers.

Liz Leipold, who has been working with Horizons for 31 years, said the program has grown from five clients, three ski instructors and about 10 volunteers in the winter of 1977-78 to include about 90 people this year. It's a social group that includes skiers and volunteers from all walks of life, from high school students to longtime residents, she said.

Horizons volunteer Mike Kent has lost count of the winters he's spent with the program's clients. It's how he met his wife, Horizons volunteer Sandy Kent, and it's how he's gotten complimentary lift tickets for more than 15 years.

"I got a lot more out of it than I thought I would," Kent said about staying with the program for as long as he has and skiing with the same Horizons client for at least 10 years. "There were really fun people, and I just got hooked."

Staying on the mountain

Katie Henderson started skiing with the STARS program this winter, and she couldn't be happier.

Waiting in line for pizza at the STARS end-of-the-year party Saturday afternoon, Henderson said she'd made it down Why Not earlier that day with no problems. She's enjoyed the social and physical aspects of the Saturday ski program, she said.

Katie Kiefer, who skis with Henderson and cheerfully refers to the team as "The Katies," said she got involved with Horizons when a longtime friend encouraged her to do so.

"It's been a really great way to get back into the skiing community and give something back," Kiefer said.

Horizons and adaptive skiing volunteers go through a three-day training program in January, learning how to use adaptive equipment and keep everything smooth on the mountain, Leipold said. In recent years Horizons has expanded the winter sports program to include snowshoeing, allowing older clients to stay involved, Horizons Director Susan Mizen said.

"It lets people stay on the mountain, which is so much a part of this community," Mizen said.

Part of the routine

If it weren't for the Horizons program, the chances of Darin English being able to ski with his family each weekend would be slim, if not zero.

English's 9-year-old son, Jack, has a developmental disability. Through the program, the whole family gets to ski, including 11-year-old Horizons volunteer Alex English. Darin English thought Jack might have trouble focusing on the hill to be able to control his speed and stay aware, but that hasn't been a problem, he said.

"He loves it, and we never, ever thought it could actually happen," English said, adding that Jack is on his way to reaching an intermediate level of skiing. "He does it, and he does it great. It's a great part of our routine."

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