LARAMIE — For Special Olympics athlete Nick Winn, the program is about more than just winning medals. Which should mean a lot, since he’s earned 158 of them.
Winn, who is 29 years old, began competing in the Special Olympics in 2007. Over the years, the Laramie man has competed in nearly every sport the program has to offer, ranging from swimming to snowshoeing to softball.
“I get to see my friends, cheer teammates on, and it just means a lot to me,” Winn said. “Without Special Olympics I probably wouldn’t have all that I (do). It keeps you motivated.”
Special Olympics is a nationwide program that facilitates sports training and competitions for people with intellectual disabilities. In the state of Wyoming, there are roughly 2,000 participants, with about 150 on Team Laramie in children and adult age groups.
Having spent years in the program, Winn has built friendships with athletes from around the state as well as in Laramie. In addition to area and state competitions, the program offers opening and closing ceremonies and team banquets.
The athletes and coaches work together to provide an encouraging, laid back environment with a group that Winn said operates like a family.
“I can’t really single any athlete out, honestly,” said Crystal Gonzales, the coordinator for team Laramie. “They are all really good. If something’s off, they try with their actions and their words to be able to pick you up.”
Winn said that in addition to being able to pursue his love for sports, the environment has been instrumental in allowing him to practice social skills and sportsmanship. Each athlete must sign a code of conduct to compete, which builds accountability and responsibility.
In recent years, the program also has been an exercise in patience for athletes and volunteers who’ve faced dwindling resources in addition to cancellations caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. While the team has still competed in area games, state competitions have been conducted virtually as a safety measure.
For many athletes, this means missing out on the social aspect that makes Special Olympics so meaningful.
“(We’re) really trying to get people more motivated to get back out competing, training and practicing,” said Bobby Casey, vice president of programs for Special Olympics Wyoming. “(We’re) trying to get people back to their old ways instead of being stuck inside.”
Despite smaller numbers, Winn said there’s still a great group of athletes competing on the local team, especially in swimming. He just brought home two gold medals and two silvers from a meet in Cheyenne.
Winn has stayed busy throughout the pandemic outside of the program as well. He volunteers at AAA Recycling & Salvage, and in his free time enjoys fishing, camping, watching movies and attending community events.
As the athletes continue to compete through a challenging time, the program is looking for more volunteers to help expand the variety of sports offered, Gonzales said. There are six consistent volunteers in the program, but ideally there would be enough to assign two people to each sport.
The program also needs coaches for powerlifting, swimming and bowling, among others.
The greatest challenge is finding people who are willing to undergo the necessary online training for the position and stick with it consistently.
“Everything we do depends on volunteers,” Gonzales said. “If we don’t have enough volunteers, we can’t offer certain sports.”
People who volunteer with the program are highly committed to keeping it working, often filling multiple positions at once, she said. In addition to coordinating and fundraising, Gonzales coaches the bowling team.
The group also works with community partners such as the University of Wyoming Police Department and Albany County Sheriff Aaron Applehans to recruit more volunteers. For athletes and volunteers, the work pays off when the group can get together to compete and simply enjoy one another’s company.
“I just love it,” Winn said. “Not many people like me have this opportunity.”