On a recent afternoon at Whitefish Mountain Resort, Cedar Vance was still full of energy after a grueling practice session on the slopes.
The petite 26-year-old flitted among the other skiers warming themselves by the outdoor fire ring at the Base Lodge. Vance was in her element, endearing the crowd with her infectious enthusiasm.
“There are no strangers in Cedar’s world,” Vance’s longtime coach, Wendy Wheeler, said. Wheeler, a teacher’s aide at Whitefish Middle School, has been coaching Vance she since she was 9.
Vance has made headlines through the years for her accomplishments. She was born with Down syndrome, but has never let her disability stand in her way. With guidance and encouragement from her mother, Bobbi Hall, and an expansive corps of supporters along the way, Vance graduated from Whitefish High School in 2010. She was a cheerleader in high school and is an accomplished equestrian, due in large part to being around horses since birth at her mother’s Stillwater Horse Whispers Ranch west of Whitefish.
In the Special Olympics arena, Vance has celebrity status. She’s been a prolific competitor, excelling in pole bending, barrel racing, trail-class events and skiing.
It’s her skiing ability that has catapulted her to the very top of Special Olympics competition. Vance will be participating in the Special Olympics World Winter Games in Austria in March in the slalom and giant slalom events.
There was a little serendipity involved in how she was selected to compete in Austria. When U.S. Special Olympics officials determined they needed two alpine skiers from Montana, the names of all of the potential participants were put into a hat for a random drawing, Hall explained.
“It was the luck of the draw,” she said.
The next step of the process was attending a training camp in Killington, Vermont, in December with other national ski team members in preparation for the world games. Vance turned in a qualifying performance.
Vance’s recipe for excellence on the slopes boils down to this: “I like to go super-duper fast without getting hurt.”
Her favorite runs on Big Mountain are the most difficult black diamond trails.
“I’m an advanced skier,” she said assuredly.
And Wheeler backed up Vance’s assertion. The indomitable skier knows no fear.
“There isn’t a run she can’t do,” Wheeler said. “Competition is natural for her. She’s going to do great in Austria.”
Vance has been with the adult Special Olympics team, White Thunder, for eight years. With Wheeler as her coach, Vance has been doing additional conditioning exercises and training to get in shape for the World Winter Games.
Vance also gets a good amount of exercise helping with the horses at her mother’s ranch, home to 23 horses and three llamas, Vance noted, along with some goldfish that live in a horse tank. The ranch is a menagerie that also includes three dogs, two cats, chickens and guinea hens.
“She’s basically my right-hand person,” Hall said about her daughter. “She helps me feed, shovel snow, she’s a great help.”
Hall attributes her daughter’s high-functioning abilities now to the fact that Vance grew up on horseback. Her balance and coordination are better than many people with Down syndrome, and Hall credits the horses with helping her develop.
When she was old enough, Vance learned to ride on her own, simply by watching her mother teach other people how to ride.
It also helps, Vance said proudly, that she was born in the Chinese zodiac year of the horse.
Hall said her daughter is a friend to everyone.
“She’s been a gift to me and one of my best teachers,” Hall said. “People who meet her feel the same. She is a blessing all of us can learn from.”
In addition to being a natural athlete, Vance also is a natural-born cheerleader, both inside and outside of any sports arena.
“You just keep on going; give it a try,” Vance said as she described her philosophy for life in general. Wheeler recalled when she and Hall discovered Vance’s cheerleading ability at a powder-puff football game during her freshman year.
“After every good kick or goal, she just was jumping up and down and cheering and patting everybody else on the back,” Wheeler recalled. “Bobbi and I looked at each other and said, ‘She sure is a good cheerleader.’”
Vance tried out for and won a spot on the cheer squad during her junior year and was a Bulldog cheerleader her junior and senior years.
She’s looking forward to representing America in the World Winter Games regardless if she wins a medal or not.
“It doesn’t matter if you win or lose, just be a good sport. It doesn’t matter, it’s who we are,” she said.
The Special Olympics World Winter Games will be held March 14-25 in Graz, Schladming-Rohrmoos and Ramsau, Austria. They will be broadcast on TV for the first time on ESPN and ABC.
Features editor Lynnette Hintze may be reached at 758-4421 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.