Special Olympics Makes Wyoming Return In Jackson After 3-Year Hiatus

Following a three-year hiatus since the COVID-19 pandemic began, the 2023 Special Olympics State Winter Games wrapped up this week in Jackson. About 350 Special Olympics athletes, coaches and volunteers attended the games.

Jake Nichols

March 17, 20234 min read

Special olympics Special Olympics Winter Games returned to Jackson Hole after a 3 year absence due to the pandemic 5 3 17 23
(Cowboy State Daily Staff)

Following a three-year hiatus since the COVID-19 pandemic began, the 2023 Special Olympics State Winter Games wrapped up this week in Jackson.

“We were all just so excited to get back to the games and back to Jackson after three years,” said Jen Haines, CEO/President of Special Olympics Wyoming. “Just to watch these athletes coming together, reuniting with their friends; it’s just something we’ve been looking forward to and it has been amazing.”

Jackson Police Chief Michelle Weber, left, lends a hand at the opening ceremonies for this week’s 2023 Special Olympics State Winter Games in Jackson. Center is Gary Endecott, a Special Olympics medalist and mentor to other athletes. Right is Special Olympics Wyoming CEO/President Jen Haines, who because of the pandemic experienced her first Special Olympics state event this week. (Courtesy Photos)

Local Athlete Takes On Larger Role

For Jackson’s Gary Endecott, Special Olympics is a way to give back. 

Endecott grew up in Kemmerer, Wyoming. His family moved to Jackson Hole where Gary would be better equipped to step out on his own with the help of social service programs like Community Entry Services, a nonprofit organization that works with adults with disabilities in Teton County. 

Endecott has become an ambassador of sorts at Jackson Hole Mountain Resort, where he can be found skiing on just about any powder day. 

“This is the first time I’ve gotten to work with Gary and I must say he is such a leader,” Haines said. “Another athlete on his team needed assistance this week and Gary was right alongside him and all his teammates, really. Every time I saw him he had a smile on his face and he was helping someone.”

In 2017, Endecott represented Wyoming and the United States when he was selected to travel to the World Games in Austria. Before that, he was always recognized as someone who enjoyed helping others. 

After the experience of international competition, Endecott still competes locally and at the state level, but now it’s more about mentoring his fellow athletes and friends.

“I medaled again this year,” Endecott said. “But really, what I enjoy now is sharing everything I’ve learned, what I know, what I love. And helping others enjoy skiing and snowboarding.”

Fellow competitors like Luke Bappe from Riverton, who will be heading to Berlin soon to compete in the World Games this year.

Special Week In Jackson

State Winter Games is one of the five main Special Olympics Wyoming competition events held each year. Athletes compete in downhill skiing, cross-country skiing, snowshoeing and snowboarding.

The three-day event kicked off Tuesday with an opening ceremony and Parade of Athletes at Jackson Hole High School with music provided by Jackson Hole Community Band.

Athletes, coaches and volunteers gathered for the introduction of competing teams, a recital of the athletes’ oath and the all-important lighting of the “Flame of Hope.”

Some 350 athletes, along with their coaches, staff and volunteers represented communities from around the state and region, including Arapahoe, Cody, Greybull, Lander, Worland, Evanston, Big Piney, Jackson, Laramie, Newcastle, Gillette, Sheridan and Casper, as well as Bozeman, Montana, and Park City, Utah.

The Winter Games were hosted at Jackson Hole Mountain Resort, Jackson Hole High School, Summit High School, Snow King Resort and the Elks Lodge.

Hundreds of handmade scarves were presented to the athletes courtesy of crocheters and knitters from across the country. Wyoming law enforcement was on hand at the opening ceremony, including Jackson Chief of Police Michelle Weber. Wyoming law enforcement has played an integral role in the torch run since 1987. 

Conditions Wednesday were a bit slushy for the cross country and snowshoeing events down low. The Alpine events were plagued with high winds and some of the ski race courses had to be moved to lower elevations. 

Thursday, weather was as perfect as it could be and everything ran smoothly, Haines said.

Special Olympics snowshoe racers get off to a slushy start Wednesday in Jackson.

State Summer Games Next

Special Olympics Wyoming is a nonprofit organization providing year-round sports training, athletic competition and other related programs to children and adults with intellectual disabilities. Its motto is: “Let me win. But if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt.”

For Haines, who took over the organization two and a half years ago, it was her first Winter Games. 

No time to rest, though. Planning is already underway for the State Summer Games, where more than 700 athletes are expected to compete. 

The Special Olympics State Summer Games will be May 18-20 in Gillette. 

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Jake Nichols

Features Reporter