Brightspot Quality Assurance Engineer Austin Fairchild describes what it was like to meet Special Olympics athlete Daina Shilts at the sixth annual Special Olympics X Games Unified Race with Hannah Teter in Aspen, CO.
In early January, I found out that I – along with four other colleagues – had been selected to travel to Colorado for the sixth annual Special Olympics X Games Unified Race with Hannah Teter. This yearly event, sponsored by Brightspot, gives professional snowboarders and Brightspot employees the opportunity to compete side-by-side, as teammates, with Special Olympics athletes from across the United States. In addition to the regular snowboarding events, this year a new Unified Ski competition was added to the races at the 2020 X Games.
As a newer employee, this was my first experiences volunteering with Special Olympics through Brightspot. We touched down in Aspen on Wednesday, January 22, where our group kicked off the events with a teammate pairing dinner with the Special Olympics athletes, chaperones and staff. I was lucky enough to sit down at the first table I saw, next to an incredible person and an accomplished athlete, Daina Shilts. Right away Daina welcomed me with open arms both to Aspen, and to the world of Special Olympics.
The Special Olympics athletes on this trip truly amazed me. They opened up their personalities and hearts to us without hesitation. Their positive outlook, happiness, gratitude and smiles were contagious.
For the next few hours I sat and talked to Daina and her coach like we had known each other forever. I told them about the small mountains on the East Coast I grew up riding and they told me about the -68 degree winters they had in Wisconsin. We shared stories and jokes and I was inspired by Daina’s journey and all of her previous accomplishments. Her ability to connect with others is truly amazing.
She didn’t have to say it, but after six years of competing in the unified snowboard race and coming so close, I could tell she really wanted to win this year. Daina was so determined and so excited there wasn’t a doubt in my mind that she would win gold the following day. As we discussed her competing and hopefully winning the next morning, she kept reiterating to me and the others at the table what was truly important to her: that everyone got to compete, feel accomplished and have fun. I was incredibly impressed with her ability to communicate the importance of what every person in that room was doing and the impact it had on every athlete. I could see why she had become such a renowned spokesperson for the Special Olympics community.
At one point, I looked around the room and saw all of the Brightspot employees sitting at different tables and having similar experiences. I laughed when I saw that my colleague, Furkan, had swapped hats with Micol Jarmolinski, a Special Olympics athlete from Argentina, and the two were singing songs together. The Special Olympics athletes on this trip truly amazed me. They opened up their personalities and hearts to us without hesitation and their positive outlook, happiness, gratitude and smiles were contagious.
Professional photos by Ben Solomon.
At home after dinner, the group and I talked about the people we’d met, the stories we’d heard, and how excited we were to watch the athletes compete the next day. On Thursday morning, we traveled to Buttermilk Mountain to watch the competition and waited in anticipation for the racing to start. We all had our favorite picks for gold—and mine was undoubtedly Daina. We cheered on the athletes during their practice runs and when Daina came down I cheered louder than anyone. After the run was complete, she even came over and gave me a fist bump before hurrying back up the course.
After each of her runs Daina would find me in the crowd and give me a thumbs up as I hooted and hollered for her in the stands. I really wanted her to win. Little did I know I would soon get my wish when, on her final run, she and her teammate—professional snowboarder Mike Schultz—clinched victory and won gold! After winning, she fell to the ground with emotion and hugged Mike and her mom. Then, after her post-win on-camera interview, she ran up to me and gave me a huge bear hug. I was so proud of her!
For the next two days we had opportunities to spend time, compete and ride with the athletes. I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to spend more time with Daina and her friends. She introduced me to professional athletes she had known for years and we took pictures, searched for powder, and just hung out like old friends. Daina and I have agreed to stay in contact throughout the year and we are both grateful to have met a wonderful, new friend.
Overall, I had an absolute blast, and a lot of it had to do with that dinner on the first night. It led to the best connections and memories I made during the trip and set the tone and the energy for the days to follow. It was the night I became a Daina Shilts fan for life!