Athletes of the week: Special Olympics Muskoka cross-country ski team

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Main photo: The Special Olympics Muskoka cross-country ski team (from left) coach Cindy Blake, Randy MacDonald (Coon), Samantha MacKenzie, Mark Cheek, Amber Bucholtz, James Clarke and John Groenevelt

It was a weekend of camaraderie and fun, and some local athletes also came away with a bunch of medals proving how dedicated they are to their sport.

Six members of the Special Olympics Muskoka cross-country ski team—Amber Bucholtz, Mark Cheek, James Clarke, John Groenevelt, Randy MacDonald (Coon), and Samantha MacKenzie—qualified to compete in the 2019 Special Olympics Ontario Winter Games, which were held January 31 to February 3 in Sault Ste. Marie.

“Special Olympics results are divisioned based on age and abilities, not just speed, therefore giving all athletes an opportunity to compete for the Gold, and we sure had a great group of athletes representing our community,” explained coach Cindy Blake.

The Muskoka cross-country team comprises athletes of varying ages and abilities who all train and practice at Arrowhead Provincial Park.

The athletes who travelled to Sault Ste. Marie for the Winter Games are:

Amber Bucholtz, 26, who lives in Huntsville and began cross-country skiing in 2014. This was her second time competing at the provincial games; the first was at North Bay in 2015. She also competed at the national games in Cornerbrook, Nfld. in 2016.

Amber Bucholtz

Amber Bucholtz

Mark Cheek, 18, who lives in Huntsville and attends Huntsville High School (HHS). This was his first time competing at the provincial games. Mark also skis with the HHS Nordic ski team and brought home gold medals from the OFSAA Para-Nordic competition in both 2017 and 2018. He only began to ski in 2017.

James Clarke, 34, who is from Port Sydney. This is his third time competing at the provincial games; he was at the competitions in Thunder Bay in 2011 and North Bay in 2015. He also competed at the nationals in Prince Albert, Man. in  2012 and Cornerbrook, Nfld. in 2016. James has been competing in Nordic freestyle skiing for 17 years.

John Groenevelt, 44, who lives in Bracebridge and started skiing in 2002. This was his second time competing at the provincial games; the first was at North Bay in 2015. He also competed at the national games in Cornerbrook, Nfld. in 2016.

John Groenevelt (right)

John Groenevelt (right)

Randy MacDonald (Coon), 33, who lives in Bracebridge. This was his first time competing at the provincial games after starting to ski in 2015.

Randy MacDonald (Coon)

Randy MacDonald (Coon)

Samantha MacKenzie, 14, who lives in Huntsville and attends Huntsville High School. She started skiing in 2018. This was her first time competing at the provincial games.

James Clarke was nominated to be the sign bearer for the Central Ontario Division. Clarke said that this experience was his best moment so far, even better than winning a collection of medals over the years in his sport.

“He led the parade into the opening ceremonies with pride,” added Blake.

Mark Cheek and James Clarke

Mark Cheek (left) and James Clarke

Mark Cheek, Samantha MacKenzie and Randy MacDonald (Coon) are new to the Special Olympics competitions and represented the team with great results. Cheek brought home three Gold medals in the 1KM Freestyle, 2.5KM Freestyle and the 5KM Freestyle. He also won a Bronze medal for the Relay. MacKenzie competed in Classic skiing and took all three Gold medals for the 100M, 500M and 1KM race. MacDonald also competed in  Classic skiing and brought home two Gold medals for the 100M and 1KM races in his division.

Amber Bucholtz, John Groenevelt and James Clarke are considered to be veterans in the competitions and also did a great job in their events. Bucholtz took the Silver in Classic skiing in the 100M, a Gold in the 500M and a Bronze in the 1KM race. Groenevelt brought home two Gold medals for the 500M and 1KM with a Silver for the 100M in Classic skiing. Clarke won the Gold in the Freestyle 1 KM skiing for his age group and two Silver medals in the 2.5 KM and 5 KM races.

“Everyone had a fantastic time and skied well,” said Blake.

The team members spent four days mingling with other Special Olympic athletes from all over Ontario at the competition. Clarke shared that he likes to travel to see other places and to meet new friends.

The Special Olympics Canada National Winter Games will be held in Thunder Bay in 2020 and the Special Olympics Muskoka cross-country ski team hopes that all of their athletes will qualify to compete, with the chance to advance to the Special Olympics World Winter Games in 2021 in Sweden. Good luck team!

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