After two years off due to COVID, the Special Olympics Michigan State Winter Games have returned to Grand Traverse Resort and Spa.
Five hundred athletes from 60 counties began competition Wednesday and it will last through the end of the week.
Maybe the best thing about this experience is that it is 100% free for athletes and coaches, thanks to the hard work by a snowmobile group called the Wertz Warriors. While the games have been on hiatus, their work hasn’t.
“It seems like it’s one of our best years were gonna have,” said Tony Pype, a rider since 1983.
For more than 40 years, the Wertz Warriors have zig-zagged through Northern Michigan riding snowmobiles to raise money.
“This is an awesome thing that Vic Wertz started in 1982,” said Randy Kuchenmeister, the ride chair and a rider since 2003. “Just trying to raise money for people that could probably use it more than we can.”
Their main focus? Special Olympics Michigan, specifically the State Winter Games. Every year they ride to raise the money to fully fund the event.
The Winter Games haven’t been held in three years but are back this year in full swing.
“We’ve been raising money, we’ve been supporting them as time goes on through COVID and all that,” said Kuchehmeister. “The bottom line is that we’re raising more money than ever working for athletes and we’re finally going to get to see our athletes after two years of being off.”
Forty-five riders and 23 support crew make up the ride this year, with the pinnacle of the ride being the opening ceremonies.
“We’ve got a lot of rookies from the last couple years they haven’t been at the games at all,” said Pype. “So it’ll be fun for them and fun for all of us old guys too.”
“Once they meet our athletes, they meet the athlete sponsors, the parents, coaches, they realize that there’s something way bigger than themselves,” said Kuchenmeister.
“I haven’t been, I’ve always heard about it and it just sounds amazing,” said Jamie Schaldenbrand.
Schaldenbrand is one of five rookies and one of just two women. The other woman being her sister, Jessica. They ride with their dad.
“My cousin, Jason, was really what helped get our family involved,” she said. “He’s always participated in the Winter Games.”
She, like the rest of the rookies, are looking forward to the ceremonies and getting to the second half of their first ride.
“They’re going easy on me so far,” said Schaldenbrand. “Just had my sled shrink wrapped and tinsel throughout all my gear bag, but not too bad.”