By Teresa Ristow
Riding down the steep slopes of Mount Ashland Sunday, snowboarder Julieanne Taylor said she was able to connect turns from her heels to her toes for the first time.
In her second season of snowboarding, Taylor said she has come a long way since last year, when she struggled down the beginner run holding the hand of one of her Special Olympics trainers.
“It was very hard then. I was on the bunny hill a lot,” said Taylor, 23, of Medford. “It takes more than one try to get it.”
As the year went on, Taylor quickly progressed, competing in Oregon’s Special Olympics competition at Mount Bachelor in Bend last March.
After cruising down the hill in slalom, giant slalom and super-G races, Taylor took home three medals — a gold, silver and a bronze for her quick speeds in each of the runs.
Earning a gold medal in super-G put Taylor into a drawing with other medal winners for an invitation to the Special Olympics World Games, a competition that occurs every two years, alternating between summer and winter games, much like the Olympic Games.
Taylor was selected as a participant in the 2013 games, and will travel with 150 athletes across the country to PyeongChang, South Korea, next week for the competition.
Taylor is one of nine snowboarders representing the United States in the games, which kick off with an opening ceremony on Jan. 29 and will run for seven days.
Athletes compete at the Alpensea Resort, a ski area in PyeongChang, about 100 miles east of Seoul, South Korea’s capital.
The Special Olympics will serve as practice for PyeongChang, which is hosting the XXIII Olympic Winter Games in 2018.
“We’re just the guinea pigs,” said Taylor, who said the mountain at PyeongChang seems flatter and has wider runs than the terrain she has grown accustomed to at the Mt. Ashland Ski Area.
“Snowboarders don’t like it when it’s flat,” said Taylor, who is concerned about the new terrain. “I’m best on the steep slopes.”
Taylor, who graduated from North Medford High School in 2008, said she has been playing sports for much of her life, and was on the track and field and bowling teams at North. She was adopted from Bulgaria before she was 5 years old.
When she was young, doctors diagnosed Taylor with attention deficit disorder and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, conditions that required her to have extra help during school.
Though Taylor said the disorders don’t affect her ability to snowboard or play other sports, her coaches have to spend extra time explaining new techniques so she can understand them.
“She does learn quickly, and she has good cognitive skills,” said John Duffie, a snowboarding coach for the Jackson County Special Olympics.
Though Special Olympics athletes are afflicted with a wide range of intellectual disabilities, Taylor said most are high-functioning, and she rarely guesses their disability when they first meet.
“Each person has a different degree of disability, and with hers it’s real subtle,” said Duffie. “She’s so social. She’s very expressive.”
Duffie said Taylor’s personality will make her an excellent representative of JCSO while in South Korea.
Taylor interacts well with other athletes in the Special Olympics, and responds well to coaching, according to JCSO coordinator Marie Cabler.
“Her sportsmanship attitude has really shown through in the last year,” said Cabler. “And we would always prefer you to come home with a sportsmanship award than a gold medal.”
When she arrives in PyeongChang, Taylor said her team will have a chance to meet other athletes and practice before the races.
Taylor said she plans to put accuracy over speed in the races as she navigates between gates — flexible poles that direct a racer through the course.
“In the World Games, I don’t want to go too fast, because if you miss a gate, you’re disqualified,” she said.
The Special Olympics covers all expenses for the athletes, including airfare and lodging in Korea, and Taylor has received snowboards and apparel from sponsors, too.
The Rogue Ski Shop gave Taylor most of her snowboarding attire for almost no cost, according to Cabler, who said the store always has supported JCSO with donations or discounts for winter gear.
Taylor said she would like to bring a gold medal home with her in a few weeks, but said she is grateful for the experience even if she isn’t the fastest snowboarder competing.
“If I don’t win the gold, I’ll know that at least I’ll get to meet people, and travel to snowboard,” she said. “I’m really excited. But nervous.”
Reach reporter Teresa Ristow at 541-776-4459 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
This story originally appeared in Medford Mail Tribune.