Special Olympians: Camaraderie, Good Times, and High Athletic Pursuits at Suicide Six



Special Olympians focus on dedication, team work, and camaraderie at Suicide Six, competing in fourteen individual races over two days. 

Pomfret/Woodstock — Tim Larsen stands at the top of the giant slalom course at Suicide Six and peers down at the red and blue flags with eager anticipation — eyes focused, heart pounding.

A member of the Upper Valley Hawks skiing team, he’s been running laps on gates since January in preparation for the annual event. Yesterday’s races went well enough he says, but today is the finals and this is the race that truly counts. When asked about his strategy for the day, he says his plan is simple:

“The only goal I have is to be in first place,” he says. “I’m the fastest.”

The gatekeeper’s radio chirps, signaling the course is open. A starter counts him down, cowbells clang behind him, and with a push of his poles, he is off and zooming down the hill, practically clipping each gate with turns as tight as those he often watches the pros make on television, where he studies their technique.

Larsen was one of roughly 350 skiers, snowboarders, cross-country skiers and snowshoers to gather at Suicide Six in Pomfret, and the neighboring Woodstock Inn and Resort, for the annual Special Olympics, a wintertime series of 14 individual races over two days.

The weekend was a lighthearted affair, with blue skies during the day and activities in the evening. Even a Woodstock police officer was seen wearing a blue tutu over his pressed grey pants as he assisted with handing out medals at Sunday’s award ceremony. But more importantly, the stories the athletes and their supporters told described how winter sports provided these athletes with an outlet for athletic achievement, community engagement and individual empowerment.

Larsen, age 25, started skiing at the age of 10 and practices at Mount Sunapee and Whaleback resorts in New Hampshire. He trains under Brett Mayfield, head coach for the Upper Valley Hawks, who, Larsen is quick to proclaim, is the “best coach ever.”

Mayfield and his team of volunteer coaches came with a squad of 15 skiers and riders. As a developmental coach, Mayfield helped organize the first winter games in New Mexico in 1983. After moving to Vermont, he’s continued to be involved with the Special Olympics in his role as the head coach of the Upper Valley Hawks ski team and the executive director of the Spark! Community Center in Lebanon, N.H., an organization that helps adults with special needs to become more independent.

Mayfield says the Special Olympics provide the high standards and precision of high-level racing to athletes of all abilities. In training, racers follow the United States Skiing and Snowboarding teaching guidelines, adapted for the needs of each skier and rider. The international competitions for the Special Olympics follow much of the same guidelines as world-class FIS racers. When racers miss a gate, they have to hike back up and complete it, or face a penalty.

“The thing about Special Olympics is they allow for somebody who has a lot of disabilities to be a highly tuned athlete,” Mayfield says. “Anybody of any ability can be competitive.”

Mayfield knows this firsthand. His daughter, Jennifer, grew up in Hartland, Vt., with a learning disability and learned to ski alongside her brothers and sisters by hiking to the top of a hill behind her house as a little girl. Jennifer, who is now 22, was the youngest person on the team when she joined at the age of 10.

Liz Barker, Jennifer’s mother has been watching her progress since the beginning.

“They’re more daring and braver than most people that get on the snow,” she says of Jennifer and her teammates and the team dynamic. “They really fly and they’re generally very nice to each other. There’s none of the cattiness that comes with other events.”

When not training for her next competitions and generally just staying in top shape, Jennifer works four days every week at the Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center. In the spring, summer and fall, she also competes in bowling, basketball, karate, track and field, and still finds time to catch Japanese beetles off of her mother’s plants and feeds them to the hens.

“There used to be nothing like this,” added Mayfield, “but people with disabilities these days are much more athletic, healthier and more active. Modern skiing equipment has made it easier to learn as well. When I was coaching, the equipment held you back, but now you can put it on anyone and they can adapt quickly.”


Tammy Hollister with her two sons Dustin and Danny at Suicide Six.
Tammy Hollister with her two sons Dustin and Danny at Suicide Six.

Dustin and Danny Hollister are brothers who practice every week on the Bluebirds ski and snowboard team at Mount Snow’s Ability Plus program.

Danny, 17, has been skiing for the past eight years and took three medals at these Special Olympics in every division – slalom, giant slalom and super-G.

While he’s raced with the Bluebirds for the past three years (and has stood on the podium at every one of his winter games appearances), Danny says he hopes to practice and compete in freestyle skiing in the future. He currently practices at the Carinthia parks at Mount Snow on the easier jumps and rails. He enjoys this variety of skiing so much he elected to ski on his twin tipped Atomic skis instead of his racing skis during the races this year, and finished near the top.

Danny has Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder and Tourette’s syndrome, which can cause unwanted, repetitive movements and sounds. But when he’s skiing, he says his Tourette’s doesn’t bother him. He forgets about his tics and focuses instead on the snow and his turns.

“It’s a little bit of a challenge,” he says, “and it lets me do what I love to do – skiing.”

Dustin suffered a head injury in 2013, resulting in some short-term memory loss in addition to his ADHD. He took his first lesson at the end of last season and signed up for the Ability Plus program. For Dustin, 13, this was his first winter games on a snowboard and he managed to claim two gold medals in the intermediate snowboard division.

“It was pretty fun,” he says, describing the races. “I met a lot of new people and made new friends,” he says. “They’re all talented in their own way.”

“He’s just so happy, he’s another person on the hill,” his mother, Tammy Hollister, says. “He really feels the accomplishment and he’s very happy. And it makes me, as a mom, feel great that they are able to do this.”

In the summer months, the family enjoys camping and this summer the boys are planning on competing in the summer Olympic games.


Andy Davis, whose daughter Emma took home gold and bronze medals in slalom and giant slalom, says this and other events are more important than just an athletic outing. He says it’s an occasion for families and supporters of people with special needs to gather, make friends and share their common camaraderie. Emma, who is 20 and has Down’s syndrome, is a senior in high school in Brattleboro, Vt.

Emma is going to complete one more year in high school and after that, he says, “the world is her oyster.” She’s competed in the Special Olympics for the past three years as well as swimming in the summer games.

In addition to the support at the Special Olympics, Davis says Emma has also received the help and support from her school. Last year she was elected prom queen by the student body.

But Davis also recognizes Emma’s experiences aren’t universal and says the opportunities for athletes and their families to come together can be few and far between – especially in a rural state like Vermont. That’s why he says events like the Special Olympics are so important.

“When you come here it’s almost like you’re coming home to all these people that understand what your life is like,” he says. “When you hang out with parents here, you know before you even say anything that they’re going to have a lot of the exact same issues. You actually don’t even have to talk about them, you just feel comfortable.”