'It's something he can do': Searsburg teen wins three medals at Vermont Special Olympics
Fifteen-year-old Danny Hollister deals with being different on a daily basis.
Hollister, a ninth-grader at Twin Valley High School in Wilmington, was diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) as a young child, then with Tourette's Syndrome at 12.
But put a pair of skis on his feet and give him a mountain to race down and that's all forgotten.
"It was awesome," Hollister said. "It felt pretty good going down the mountain."
At the recent Vermont Special Olympics alpine ski event at Suicide Six in Pomfret, Hollister competed in the Giant Slalom, Slalom and novice Slalom, winning two silver medals and a bronze in his first year of competition.
"He won the bronze, then a silver and he told me, ‘Third time's a charm, Mom,' said Tammy Hollister. "He was just as happy as he could be."
Hollister skis for the Bluebirds, a team made up of skiers from Ability Plus, an adaptive snow sports program at Mount Snow in West Dover. The team name comes from the group's favorite chairlift at the resort.
He got into skiing in the third grade with his family, then continued one day a week at Mount Snow as part of the school district's special needs curriculum. Sue Tatem, the executive director of Ability Plus and one of the Bluebirds' coaches, watched him ski in the program and asked if Hollister would join the team.
"He already knew how to ski and I saw something in him," Tatem said. "I wondered if he'd like this. So one day when his mother came to pick him up I told her I had a crazy idea ... would he be interested in joining? And she said, ‘Absolutely, he'd be the happiest kid on the planet.'"
So, starting in January, Hollister traveled to the resort on the weekends to prepare for the state-wide Winter Olympic Games from March 8-10.
Alpine skiing is one of four sports in the winter Games, along with Nordic skiing, snowshoeing and snowboarding.
"I'd been working on my edging, carving and keeping my weight forward," Hollister said. "My teammates are great and my coaches really help me."
Tatem has worked in the adaptive sports field for the better part of three decades and joined Ability Plus eight years ago.
She taught lessons, along with many volunteers, but decided to take it to the next level last winter, starting a Special Olympics team. People in the Ability Plus program include those with both physical and developmental disabilities.
"Mount Snow offers lessons, but not at the high school level. So I've been growing it, getting the word out to special educators in the area," Tatem said. "I wanted to get more local kids involved."
After eight training sessions from January to March, Hollister was ready for the competition.
"He took to it immediately. These kids just come out to ski and then they actually get to race, it's amazing," Tatem said.
The night before the competition, all the athletes participate in the opening ceremonies, similar to the Olympic Games, where each team walks into the stadium.
Tatem couldn't be there due to a previous commitment, but was in tune with what was going on, thanks to Danny's mother.
"I kept getting amazing text messages from Tammy, sending me pictures from the parade," Tatem said. "She was so overwhelmed with how wonderful everything was. It gives them the opportunity to be ‘normal'".
Then on competition day, Danny Hollister went out and ruled the slopes.
But the medals are secondary. The effect of skiing changes Danny, and Tammy said her son's disability seemingly disappears during a run.
"He looks forward to skiing every weekend," she said. "When he's doing it, the tics go away and he relaxes. He really enjoys himself."
Watching, she said, is an emotional experience.
"It brings tears to my eyes. It's something he can do, despite his disability," Tammy Hollister said.
He's also made progress socially, one of the many benefits of the program.
"It's very hard to make friends and he made a best friend over the weekend," Hollister said. "This whole thing has really boosted my son's confidence."
Even though the calendar is turning to spring, Danny Hollister already looks forward to next season.
Last weekend, he went to Mount Snow to show Tatem the three medals he'd won.
"There's almost no words to describe what it makes me feel to see a terrific kid like Danny do something he never thought he would do and reach that potential," Tatem said. "I couldn't be more proud or thrilled for him."
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