Boardman Returns from World Games With a Silver Medal—and a Golden Lesson

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Thursday February 28, 2013

Leah Boardman of South Burlington has returned from the World Special Olympic Games in the Republic of Korea, earning a silver medal in the Super G Alpine Ski Race.

Leah was selected as one of 157 people in the country to be a member of Team USA.  Her journey to the Republic of Korea began on January 25, flying to Los Angeles, California (site of the upcoming 2015 World Special Olympic Summer Games), for an Olympic-style sendoff for Team USA. The group then journeyed to Seoul, South Korea for an event called “Host Town”, where they met with the U.S. Ambassador to Korea and other officials.  They also visited with members of the U.S. Military stationed in the country, and stopped by a local school.  

The games started with the opening ceremonies on January 29 in Pyeongchang.  Three thousand athletes from 111 Countries participated in seven winter events.  It was an amazing experience to be part of the largest delegation, Team USA, marching into the stadium with more than 7,000 people watching and cheering. The entire week was full of special events, sprinkled with Olympic champions such as Michelle Kwan, Hannah Teter, and Apolo Ohno, who came to show their support.  

One of the most amazing things about the World Games was conquering the natural communication difficulties that arise when putting together 111 countries. You might expect that this, compounded by the additional challenge of athletes with special needs, would make things even more difficult.  Compassion and appreciation, however,  need no words, and the universal language of cheering, clapping, smiling, and laughing are not things that need to be spoken. 

On Leah’s adventure, this feeling was experienced firsthand.  Leah did well in her assessments and division races for the first few days of the competition.  The Super G-race was postponed one day due to heavy rains and warm temperatures.  The next day, the thermometer was back down in the 20s, which turned the course to an icy granular.  Great for speed—not for stopping.

Leah skied the course beautifully and finished clean, but she still was going too fast when exiting the course, and had trouble slowing down on the ice. She became caught in the bee netting, resulting in a fall and a 2-inch gash on the side of her knee; the same knee that she had just spent five months recovering from a meniscus tear.  The compassion from parents on the course who were watching was wonderful. A father from Italy ran out to help untangle Leah, and her coach hurried to help her off the course and over to the ski patrol, who brought her to the medical tent.

Getting hurt is scary enough; add in the language barrier, and that fear factor increases.  But yet again, compassion prevailed.  A young Korean volunteer sat and held Leah’s hand while a doctor assessed her wound.  The gash was too deep to handle on site, and it was determined that she needed stitches and a hospital.  Without many words as to what was happening, we were put into an ambulance and driven to a helipad to board a medical helicopter.  Dr. Taft, the Team USA doctor, stayed with Leah while she received 13 stitches from the wonderful Korean Medical team.  To return to the hotels, we boarded an ambulance with another injured skier from Kosovo and her coach.  

The beautiful girl, who spoke no English, had been waving to Leah in the hospital, and heard her crying.  In the ambulance, she showed Leah her nametag and Leah did the same, and they attempted to pronounce each other’s names.  Then she placed her hand very gently on Leah’s knee and kept it there for the entire hour-long ride back to the hotel, using her other hand to hold Leah’s. All this was done without a word, but the compassion between countries and athletes was evident once again.  It didn’t matter who won a medal or where you were from, it was about making someone who was hurt feel better.

Leah was out on the slopes the next day, cheering on Team USA from the sidelines, with the cowbells ringing loud.  Although she was not able to compete in the other two races due to her injury, Leah displayed true team spirit.  She missed her medal ceremony due to the injury, but the folks at the Alpine Ski Hill still wanted to present Leah with her medal on the podium.  On the last day of the games, a special ceremony was held with Team USA coaches, parents, and athletes in attendance, and Timothy Shriver, CEO of the Special Olympics, personally gave Leah her medal.

Leah is back in Vermont at UVM and is looking forward to getting back on the slopes to prepare for her next competition at the Winter Games in Woodstock, Vermont on March 8. The overall experience of attending a global Olympic event was amazing, but the generous spirit of parents and athletes from around the world was the real takeaway.  A medal is nice, but the true prize is learning that no matter where you are in the world, kindness can always shine through.