Snowboarder Hannah Teter is an Olympic gold medalist, a six-time X Games medalist, and one of the biggest names in the sport. She’s also a Global Ambassador for the Special Olympics. And it was in that role when inspiration struck: pair Special Olympians with X Game pros. It took a couple years, but at the 2015 X Games Aspen she saw her idea become a reality with the introduction of Special Olympics Unified Giant Slalom.
The race groups 10 able-bodied pro snowboarders with 10 Special Olympic athletes. Each boarder makes a run — pro vs. pro, Special Olympian vs. Special Olympian — and the best combined team score wins. In the inaugural event, X Game vet Chris Klug and Special Olympian Henry Meece narrowly defeated Teter and Dana Shilts. “I was pretty stoked!” Meece says of winning gold. “I didn't know I got it until one of the coaches pulled me up. I loved it.”
The event was an instant success, and it’s returning in 2016. But because the Special Olympians are so skilled there are some adjustments being made. We talked with Teter about the race, her involvement with the Special Olympics, and what fans can expect from the race in 2016.
When did you start working with Special Olympics, and when did you get involved with the organization?
I got involved probably almost four years ago now. I grew up with a special needs brother, so I saw a lot of challenges he faced growing up and just always wanted to be a part of Special Olympics to change the barriers that are put up to people with intellectual disabilities. So it was always a passion because I saw, first and foremost, with my own brother the boundaries and the barriers that people put up.
What's your role as an ambassador? How do you work with athletes and talk about what the Special Olympics mission?
I get to be a part of all of it. I get to go to events and to the Unified competitions with the athletes. We were just in LA at the World Summer Games. I was in South Korea for the World Winter Games. I get to do the panels and brainstorm ideas to get Special Olympics more mainstream and more involved with the youth. My target audience is the youth, so I reach out to that category and have gotten to go speak at schools and do a bunch of cool stuff.
When you work with the athletes, what's that experience like? How do they react with you, and how has your work the organization changed since you started working with them?
Working with the athletes is just an incredible experience because there's just so much passion and so much gratefulness in the athletes who work so hard to be good at their sport. And it's just a different dimension, almost, because I'm used to being with athletes who, you know, can be a little egoic and not have as much fun as they should be having. So it just changes up the perspective of taking it more back to the roots of why we all started doing our sports in the first place, which is because they're fun.
At the Special Olympic event at the 2015 winter X Games, how did the able-bodied athletes interact with the Special Olympians who were there?
it was just so much fun. Ten Olympic action sports athletes partnered up with 10 intellectually disabled snowboarders who shred and they don't even — you wouldn't even think they were any different because they're just so good and kicking our butts most of the time! They're just so fast and committed and so driven that I was, like, "I better work on my game! My girl's, like, way better than me!" (laughs) So it just showed how much talent they have and just to showcase on a nation-wide, world, global stage and they just couldn't be more proud of themselves, which is, like, it's just a reminder for all of us to be more grateful and to have more fun.
Sometimes, if a person's not used to working or interacting with someone with a disability, they can get awkward or self-conscious about what to say or how to act. Was there any of that among the able-bodied athletes at the X Games?
No, everyone immediately just clicked. We all got our partners and it was just so — I keep saying fun, but it was just... Everyone was so comfortable and ready to compete together and put it on the line for a medaled event. Because we all want that gold! Once there's a medal put out there, everyone's game face gets put on. So people were strategizing, me and my partner, Dana, were just having our pep talk before hand trying to figure out how we were going to take this thing home...
You guys almost did it!
Yeah, we were so close! And I kind of messed it up for us. Luckily we still got silver. People were hungry! Nobody wanted to lose.
Did you have any involvement in the organization of the event itself in terms of how it was going to run and who the athletes were going to be on the able-bodied side?
I helped a little bit with that. When I was in South Korea for the World Winter Games, I was on a panel with all these incredibly intelligent, smart people. The plan was to come up with an idea of how to get Special Olympics more mainstream. And sitting in a circle with high-end people, I had this idea of, "Hey! Why isn't Special Olympics in X Games?" There's no better stage to showcase these amazing athletes. So that was my idea. And [Special Olympics] founder Tim Shriver was sitting front row drawing up a logo of the Special Olympics X Games while I was talking about it, and it just manifested from there. I mean, they did all the work, but I had the idea! It just made sense. After hanging with the athletes and just seeing how hard they push it and how talented they are, it was just a no brainer.
As the person who came up with the idea, how did you react when you saw it all sort of rolling along and moving?
I wasn't surprised because it just made sense. How could they say no to this idea? It belongs in X Games. So I was obviously super happy and like blown away, like, "Oh my God, it happened and it happened pretty fast." Two years later it was going to be in X Games. I was surprised that it did move so quickly. But it just made sense.
So did you help organize it this year as well? What's your involvement this time around?
We had some feedback from last year, which was to put the course somewhere else and make it longer. Make it a little bit more challenging because everyone is so talented, so it could be more hardcore. So this year I think it's going to be on that extreme X Games level because that's what X Games is all about.
Can you see this expanding into something bigger? Maybe it's own thing that runs parallel to the X Games, not just a one-off event?
Yeah! It can apply... It could be it's own thing. I think it's easy to put it in with something big, that way it gets that big platform. But, yeah, I mean, it's so fun and people love watching it that it could be its own thing.
When you started competing professionally and getting involved with Special Olympics, did you imagine you'd be sitting with world leaders and coming up with these big events that would show up in the X Games?
I didn't have any idea the scale of things that I would be involved with when I was younger. But I was a big dreamer. There was a rock I'd go to every day or every couple days to just sit and ponder and be, like, “Hey, if I make it big, I want to do something meaningful and be a good role model.” So I kind of manifested that in a way when I was young because that's what I would think about and focus on, doing well but for a higher purpose. So, hey, you gotta dream big — or start small and then... I started small, and the dreams got bigger and bigger.
Do you have a favorite moment or memory from last year's event?
There are so many... Probably the best was going on stage with my partner Dana when they called me and her out and the DJ's rocking some tune and the crowd's cheering and Dana's ecstatic and I was just lit up. It just had a different feel to it, just more high energy because my partner was on top of the world and that just reminded me, like, "I'm on top of the world, too!"
Photos: Gabriel Christus / ESPN Images (Teter), Tomas Zuccareno / ESPN Images (Shilts), Kaitlyn Egan (Teter and Shilts)