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Bitterroot Winter Special Olympics

Kicking up snow all the way down the racetrack, Zach Roberts hurried toward the finish line in the timed trials of snowshoe racing during last year's Bitterroot Winter Special Olympics at Lost Trail Powder Mountain ski area.

WHITEFISH — For the first time in 22 years, Special Olympics athletes from across Montana won’t be gathering for two days at the Whitefish Mountain Resort to compete in alpine skiing, snowshoe races and other events at the state level.

Special Olympics Montana recently announced the cancellation of the 2018 State Winter Games in Whitefish.

The program that provides opportunity for athletes with intellectual disabilities to compete in a variety of sports throughout the year is facing the challenge of balancing the needs of a growing number of participants with limited funding and numbers of volunteers.

The decision to end the state winter games was years in the making, said Special Olympics President Bob Norbie in a statement posted to the organization’s website.

“With athlete numbers increasing at a rate faster than we have the capacity (fans and funds) to service them with our current delivery model, we need to rethink how we care for our mission and sustain a quality program,” Norbie said.

In 2011, the organization served 1,850 Special Olympics athletes. In 2016, that number had grown to 2,966.

Among Special Olympics events, the state winter games averaged about 350 participants, the state summer games drew around 1,200 athletes and the state basketball tournament served more than 700, said Special Olympics outreach vice president Lanni Klasner.

“Our challenge always is having enough resources, both human and financial, to put on the games,” Klasner said. “We don’t charge the athletes. We depend on the generosity of others to do that.

“We’ve grown by quite a lot over the last decade, which is awesome,” she said. “That’s also created some challenges on our infrastructure, which is often the issue for organizations driven by volunteers. … We’ve had to look at where we make the biggest impact.”

At this time, the organization doesn't plan to cancel any other events in 2018.

“The decision to cancel the state winter games took a lot of factors into play,” Klasner said. “We had to balance out everything we do in order to be sustainable and move forward. We thought it was the best decision.”

Whitefish Mountain Resort spokesperson Riley Polumbus said the resort has always been proud to have been part of the state’s Special Olympics winter program.

“It’s an event that we have never had any trouble getting volunteers to help with,” she said. “The staff always looks forward to doing it. It’s something that we’ve all enjoyed.”

The state winter games traditionally started with a parade through Whitefish on Sunday with competition occurring on Monday and Tuesday. The resort hosted a banquet for the athletes, their families and volunteers on Monday night.

In the past, the two days of the games have been the busiest days for the resort’s base lodge.

“It’s pretty cool when you get all the athletes, their parents, coaches and volunteers all together,” Polumbus said. “It’s truly like hosting the Olympics. It’s such a happy and excited group of people. … It’s an awesome thing to be part of that.”