An Olympic-sized smile graced Christine Sexton’s face as she climbed atop the victory stand to accept the gold medal she won at the Special Olympics 2009 World Winter Games.
It’s easy to understand why the Payson woman was in high spirits — winning the gold represents the pinnacle of success for the more than 3,000 athletes with intellectual disabilities, representing 95 countries, who poured into the Idaho Center in Nampa Feb. 8 for opening ceremonies.
Before the competition began, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, Special Olympics CEO Tim Shriver and Olympic figure skater Scott Hamilton addressed the athletes.
Shriver praised the World Games qualifiers and challenged spectators saying, “They’re racing with all the energy God gave them. They’re unafraid. They’re brave. Don’t just admire them. Don’t just be nice to them. Don’t you dare pity them. Instead, why not follow them?”
Also at the games, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin delivered a power-packed speech during which she praised the hope Special Olympics provides for her son Trig, who has Down Syndrome.
Schwarzenegger, in a videotaped message, said, “I come to Special Olympics to pump up the athletes and inspire them, but I’m always the one who gets pumped up and inspired the most.”
For Sexton, who won her medal in figure skating, the trip to the World Games represents the first time she has qualified.
Her longtime coach in Payson, Becky Derwort, believes Sexton had earned the trip.
“She is a very dedicated athlete and is so deserving,” she said.
Sexton earned the slot on the 229-member American contingent with her showing in the state games and in regional competition in San Diego.
Although she has been competing in figure skating for several years, she recently took the next step to success by hiring a private coach, Cami Hernandez, to train her. Sexton travels once a week to a Chandler-area skating rink for lessons.
“She just loves to skate and is so good,” said Sexton’s grandmother, Louise Wiley, who traveled with her to the World Games.
In the competition, Sexton, an employee of Payson Walmart, was required to first compete in compulsory singles, which included jumps, spins, step sequences and spirals.
She also did elective artistic skating to musical selections from “Chicago” the musical.
Her victory drew praise from friends and family including her cousin, Jennifer Steinmann, a resident of Tucson.
“We are all very proud of her accomplishment,” she said.
Among the Arizonans who qualified with Sexton where a male figure skater from Show Low, cross-country and Alpine skiers and a Unified Floor Hockey team.
In all, 20 Arizona athletes were chosen for the American team.
“This is an amazing, once-in-a-lifetime experience for them,” said Tom Fraker, CEO of Special Olympics Arizona.
Seven sports make up the World Games: Alpine skiing, cross country skiing, figure skating, floor hockey, snowboarding, snowshoeing and speed skating.
Competitions were held at Bogus Basin, Sun Valley, Qwest Arena in Boise, Expo Idaho in Garden City, Ponderosa State Park in McCall and Idaho Ice World in Boise.