Spokane Valley’s Heather Comer has done something many have not: stood proud on a center podium, accepting a gold medal, qualifying for the Olympics.
She’s also had to overcome something many athletes have not: Down syndrome.
Later this month, 29-year-old Comer and her family will travel to the Special Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, where she will compete in three Alpine skiing events: slalom, giant slalom and downhill.
“It just feels awesome,” said Comer, a wide grin on her face.
The Special Olympics was launched in 1968 to combat negative stereotypes about people with intellectual disabilities. About 1,000 people from 26 U.S. states and Canada competed in those first games. This year, 3,300 people will compete in the world games.
Worldwide, however, 3.7 million athletes from more than 170 countries participate in Special Olympics activities.
Comer’s love of the slopes began about 15 years ago, when she joined Spokane Parks and Recreation’s Therapeutic Recreation Services program, which offers activities for the disabled in the community. Comer found a home with the Powderhounds, a ski team for the intellectually disabled.
“It’s a great way to connect with friends,” she said.
Now, Comer’s family says she can easily keep up with her coaches and family members, all of whom are avid skiers.
But beyond skiing, participating in Powderhounds and the TRS program offers the disabled the opportunity to gain life skills, independence and confidence, team coach Roger Schramm said. In some cases, the students’ skills surpass those of their instructors, he said.
“They get confidence out of it,” Schramm said. “They gain the ability to be away from their family or group homes. They get an opportunity to do something they don’t normally.”
Comer’s mother, Joanne Comer, said she has watched her daughter grow both physically and emotionally as a result of the program and Special Olympics, saying her daughter is an inspiration to other people with Down syndrome in the community.
“It really gives folks like Heather the opportunity to participate in a sport with their friends and family members, different volunteers and different people from the community that participate in the program,” she said.
Heather Comer’s personal coach, Joanie Sloan, said the program has helped Comer mature and become independent. Sloan, whose own son has Down syndrome, said Comer is a leader on the team and helps other students when they need it, pushing and motivating her friends on the mountain.
“She kind of does it all pretty much on her own as far as the competing,” Sloan said. “As good as she is, she could probably be a coach.”
Despite her skills, Sloan said Comer knows what it’s like to fail, and she knows she can’t always be the best. But that doesn’t bother her, Sloan said. The purpose of the program is not to win but to have fun.
“I think if she didn’t win a gold medal she’d be happy,” Sloan said. “She’s very motivated and driven and she’s just very great to be around and has a great personality. I think she’s going to do good if she has a lot of fun and just goes for it.”
And Heather Comer agrees. For her, going to South Korea isn’t all about winning gold medals or racing as fast as she can. For now, the athlete is more interested in making new friends, doing what she loves and, most importantly, having fun.
“That’s what it’s all about,” she said. “Fun.”