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On the medal stand, having been escorted up by event dignitaries and uniformed men, they look like any other group of winter X-gamers basking in the fame that found them at the finish line. Tall, short, skinny, beefy, tattooed, pierced, stringy-haired, bald, smiling, tight-lipped, waving, or simply standing at exhausted attention, the athletes wait for the ceremonial recognition of their day on the hill. The emcee makes his introductions, medals are lifted over tilted heads, and it is only then that this scene leaps from the typical to the Special.

One female slalom contestant, for whom the gleaming medallion holds far more than its face value, hugs the medal bearer and holds on until the whoops from the crowd are audible at the top of the number four double lift. Another skier, a slightly cooler customer decked out in a camouflage parka and flat-brimmed cap, shakes hands, waits a beat, then lets loose a cry that has traveled skyward from his socks, his hands beating at the air like an abalone diver desperately breaking the surface. You might not see quite this level of emotion at an event sponsored by a brewery or credit card company, but here at the 2008 Southern California Special Olympics winter games it is the common currency, everybody’s memento to take home.

Earlier that morning: the volunteers, as diverse a crowd as the athletes themselves, stand around on the wood deck at Bear Mountain tucking hats they won’t be needing on such a mild day back in their pockets, and making the small jokes known to all the world’s unsure early risers. They watch the small nations of athletes—hailing from more than a dozen chapters spread across Southern California—as they bang boots into the right fit and begin their pre-race rituals, shaking limbs, rolling shoulders, crouching low, cracking wise, and throwing arms around each other, laughter bellowing across the lower slopes. The sun shoots higher, the shadows shorten, and the uphill migration begins.

At the top of the lift where the slalom runs are set up, the veteran volunteers quickly train the newcomers and returnees in the event’s logistics. Rapid introductions turn contestants and handlers into old chums in the space of a minute or two, as the line snakes its way through the snow toward the starting gate. All spectacle aside, this is where the athletes push off into the unknown limits of their personal challenges. Some meet them deliberately and carefully, others with a more freewheeling approach. But they all slide down the hill carrying a single flicker of the Olympic flame.

Among them is Joe. One gate away from the finish line, he struggles to reset in his uphill binding as the time limit on his run expires. Up the hill, the other contestants wait patiently while volunteers shift their weight back and forth and battle the urge to intervene. Joe bangs away metronomically with his right heel until finally, he is back in, and with a wave of his pole he churns his way to the finish line, too slowly for gold, silver, or bronze, but with enough momentum to pull all the assembled spirits in attendance with him. Joe comes in dead last, and Joe wins. The volunteers stop their empathetic squirming and straighten up, smiling. Joe made them all winners, and you can taste it in the air, feel it on your face, and make a footprint in it.

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