Rivals Unite for Special Olympics

For years, members of the Hanover High and Lebanon High girls hockey teams have been inspiring Upper Valley Special Olympics athletes with cheers and guidance while they race on skis and snowshoes.

This year, it’s their coaches’ turn.

In lieu of prominent keynote speakers — past sports luminaries such as Hannah Kearney and Tiger Shaw are caught up with commitments related to the upcoming Sochi Olympics — Marauders coach John Dodds and the Raiders’ Brad Shaw will be delivering a shared introductory speech during this morning’s UVSO opening ceremonies at Dartmouth Skiway.

Hanover and Lebanon, which are playing one another at Campion Rink tonight at 6:30, will set aside their rivalry and unite to support the 12th edition of the Upper Valley Special Olympics. While both Dodds and Shaw are far from specialists in the realm of public speaking, both will give it their best shot this morning.

Opening ceremonies — which also include the carrying of the torch by an athlete with Lyme Police Chief Shaun O’Keefe and the National Anthem, sung by a Dartmouth College student a capella group — commences at 9:30 a.m.

“Public speaking is not my favorite thing,” Dodds confessed. “But it will be a good way to talk about how I feel about this event and how it’s a great (platform) for character and life lessons. I really feel like sports is a good way to do that and this (event) in particular is a great example of that.”

In each of the previous eight seasons Dodds has coached the Marauders, he and players have gathered in the snowshoe-race area, rooting on competitors and helping scorekeepers keep track of results. The Raiders, who have been attending since the tenure of their previous coach, Bob Ceplikas, normally help out operations in the alpine skiing area.

Dodds was particularly touched last year, when an athlete stumbled on the course, but got up and finished the race.

“A girl last year fell about 20 feet from the finish line, but our girls and the other athletes cheered her on and encouraged her to get up and finish the race,” Dodds said. “I thought it was a great example that never giving up is more important than winning the race.”

Shaw echoed that sentiment, and plans to incorporate it into his portion of the keynote speech. He’s already written a couple of paragraphs that he plans to read.

“I’m going to keep it short; I think (organizers) only want it to be about five minutes between the two of us,” Shaw said. “I just want to tell them all to do their very best, keep their heads held high. ... It’s pretty exciting to be doing it with John. We’ve known each other for a long time.”

It’s also exciting for Raider and Marauder players, many of whom look at the day as a highlight of their season. Hanover junior defender Emma Malenka was so excited, she rescheduled her target date for SAT exams. She’d been planning to take them today before finding out doing so would interfere with participating at the Special Olympics.

“It only happens one day a year. I can take the SATs again in two months,” Malenka said. “It’s a really fun atmosphere. It doesn’t matter who wins, it’s really just all about getting everyone together and having a lot of fun.”

Malenka admitted it will require some mental adjusting to leave the festivities at Dartmouth Skiway and immediately shift focus to taking on the Raiders in a key NHIAA battle a couple hours later. Yet she expects the experience in the morning to carry over into gametime.

“The game’s going to be more intense, but you still keep in mind about how sports are really about having fun,” she said. “(The Special Olympics are) a good reminder of that.”

After consistently drawing more than 120 athletes for years, last year’s edition ebbed at 85. Second-year director Jim Beattie thinks it might have had something to do with the date, which had been moved back one week because of a scheduling conflict at Dartmouth Skiway.

The Special Olympics were instead held the first weekend in February, causing it to coincide with Vermont’s Penguin Plunge, a Special Olympics fundraiser that sends pledgers into the frigid waters of Lake Champlain. New Hampshire holds its own version one week later in the Atlantic Ocean at Hampton Beach.

With the schedule clear again this year, Beattie said registration figures were back up around 120. Unfortunately, a lack of snow cover on the cross country skiing course caused the cancellation of those events.

“We had eight (athletes) who dropped out because of that,” said Beattie, the former Major League Baseball pitcher who inherited directorial duties for the event from fellow Dartmouth College alumnus and Upper Valley Games founder Pete Bleyler. “We’re down to 113 now, but it’s still much better than last year.”

Jared Pendak can be reached at jpendak@vnews.com or 603-727-3306.