Cue the theme from "Rocky" because El Jebel resident Alex Bender has just come home from South Korea as a Special Olympics medalist. Bender, 19, joined Team USA, a contingent of 152 athletes and 61 coaches and staff, to compete in the Special Olympics 2013 World Winter Games in the Republic of Korea from Jan. 29 to Feb. 5.
Bender, who was born with Down syndrome, won two medals and a ribbon for alpine skiing. "It was exciting," she said during a phone call from New Jersey last week, where she was relaxing with family and applying for college.
This was Bender's first trip overseas, and she took it all in stride, said her mother, Gary Bender, who attended the Games with three family members. "I think she did very well."
Athletes began their trip on Jan. 24 in Denver, where western regional teams gathered for a flight to Los Angeles. After meeting up with the rest of Team USA in L.A., the athletes spent 12 hours getting to know each other during the flight to Seoul. Once in Korea, said coach Brandon Undeberg, they all hit the ground running. "The trip in general was a whirlwind," he said.
After three flights that included a lay-over in Japan, the athletes and all their gear were bused to a welcome center in Seoul and on to the Seoul Youth Hostile. They met with team doctors to see how they were acclimating to the 12-hour time change. "Some of the athletes are on medication," explained Undeberg. "We had to figure out how [medication dosages] would transfer with the time zone."
After a few days of cultural tours and a trip to the U.S. Army Base, the team headed to the Games at Pyeongchang in the Taebaek Mountains, 180 miles east of Seoul. Undeberg said the terrain resembled that of the Roaring Fork Valley but after a day or so, he noticed something missing. "There aren't any animals," he said.
Undeberg, from Cody, Wyo., said he's used to seeing bighorn sheep, elk and the usual western wildlife almost every day. But not so in Korea. "I saw maybe a handful of birds - not even a chipmunk or a squirrel," he recalled. Undeberg said he isn't sure why there is a lack of wildlife.
Gary Bender recalled fish hanging outside everywhere. She said locals claim that because of climate change, the East Sea is too warm, and the fish have migrated north. "The fish are imported from Russia," she explained. "[The Koreans] hang the fish to preserve them." And dried squid is sold in vending machines like beef jerky.
Bender also took a trip to the Demilitarized Zone between North and South Korea to honor her father, who fought in the Korean War. She and her daughter, Courtney, went to an observatory about four miles from the border and looked over into North Korea. "It was cold and damp and eerie," she said. She added that South Korea is "a country on alert" because of the recent underground nuclear weapons test in North Korea.
At the Games' opening ceremonies, Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi and others welcomed more than 2,300 athletes from more than 110 nations and ushered in a week of international camaraderie and high-spirited competition. Events included snowboarding, snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, alpine skiing, figure skating, speed skating and more.
Alex Bender said ski conditions were icy. "I don't like icy," she said, recalling difficulties with similar conditions last November while training at Lake Placid, N.Y. Coach Undeberg said the Lake Placid challenges may have been good practice for Pyeongchang, but he also tipped his hat to Alex's local coaches, Cammi Menager and Paul Squadrito, and Challenge Aspen. "The work that her coaches did in two months made for a huge improvement," he explained. "[Alex] just muscled through."
Alex won the silver medal (second place) in her division for the Alpine Intermediate Super G and bronze (third place) for the Alpine Intermediate Slalom. A bright blue ribbon was her prize for fifth place in the Alpine Intermediate Slalom. For the bronze, she skied faster than she did during the qualification runs. "I love the silver and bronze," said Alex. "It makes me happy."
Now that the World Winter Games are over, Undeberg will return to his family and teaching in Cody. But, he said, Korea was the trip of a lifetime, and he'd do it all again in a heartbeat. "This opportunity doesn't happen [for the athletes] very often. The world usually comes to them," he explained. "[At the World Games], they interact with other athletes from all over the world who are dealing with the same issues."
Gary Bender, director of Valley Life for All, a Roaring Fork Valley nonprofit organization working toward inclusion of disabled people into the community, said the Special Olympics World Winter Games were a reflection of how people around the world are recognizing the gifts and talents of people with disabilities. "When my daughter can stand in line and throw up her arms and beam," she said. "That's what it should be like."
But for South Korea, the Olympics are just beginning. Pyeongchang will host the Winter Olympic Games in 2014.