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Mocha Musings: Olympian feats not always about being first

As I write this, the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio are coming to a close. We have witnessed a display of astonishing feats of physical prowess, Herculean strength and discipline, acts of compassion and sportsmanship, and, off the field, incidents of non-Olympian behavior as well.

For me, this brought to mind an entirely different set of Olympics of which I was privileged to be a part several years ago, if even just on the periphery. At the time, I was a volunteer with the Caring Canines literacy program in Flagstaff together with our Delta-certified dog, Bear. We had adopted Bear, a pudgy, senior yellow lab, from the local animal shelter, and she and I had been involved with the Middle School Special Education Life Skills classroom for some time when we were asked to attend the winter Special Olympics. Our son, 6-and-a-half years old, came along with Bear and I, and we drove up the snowy mountain road, direction Grand Canyon, to the ski area just outside of Flagstaff proper. It was a cold, crisp winter’s morning, perfect for such activities.

When we arrived, the staging area at the base of the hill was bustling with volunteers and competitors, everyone bundled up in brightly-colored parkas and one-piece snow suits. One race in particular stood out for us that day, and my son — who is now 19 — and I were talking about it just yesterday. He told me what a difference going along with me for such events made for him and how it helped him, in his words, “to see people with disabilities as normal and, as a child, to not be afraid of someone who is different.” He was also always impressed by the dedication of the teachers and the love of the families for, as he called them, “Bear’s kids.”

The race I’m referring to that day came after the skiing competition. It was the snowshoe race. Simply put: the Special Olympic athletes had to make their way along the well-marked snowy trail going for the best time possible. Anyone who has ever snowshoed knows they can be clumsy to wear, and I can’t think of a single cross-country skier who would trade skis for snowshoes under most conditions. In short, an arduous task.

A light snow had begun to fall and, as the snowshoe race progressed, the competitors crossed the finish line one-by-one to the cheers of family and friends. One young man, clad in a large parka, knit cap and muffler, came into view as he appeared around the last bend from behind the pines. Clearly tired and alone, he was in last place, far behind the others. Struggling through the snow, he lifted one foot after the other, each step demanding every bit of strength he could still muster.

The crowd noticed him and began to cheer him on, yelling words of encouragement. His focus was intense as he painstakingly made his way toward the orange flags of the finish line. Then he fell, sinking all the way to his knees in the snow. Pulling himself up with his poles, he plowed forward, falling again and again in the soft snow. My son and I watched as he battled his physical and mental challenges, pushing on with determination and courage.

When he did cross the finish line and his teacher ran toward him, clapping him on the back, he dropped to the ground and raised his right arm, holding his ski pole high in victory. His smile was as broad as Usain Bolt’s, and the crowd exploded into applause and cheers, just as if he had taken first place.

Because in the most important way imaginable, he just had.

Award-winning author, TV presenter and world traveler Susanne Severeid is an Ashland resident who enjoys making time for the important things in life — including mocha. Read more of her columns at bit.ly/adtssmm. For more, go to www.susannesevereid.com. Email her at susannewebsite@olypen.com.