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Minot Special Olympics snowshoer headed to world event in Austria

MINOT, N.D.--A dedicated athlete, Christy Coughlin of Minot sets the bar high for herself as a Special Olympics competitor and ambassador. In October, Coughlin was inducted into the North Dakota Special Olympics Hall of Fame for past accomplishments.

Christy Coughlin will join athletes from 110 nations at the Special Olympics World Winter Games in Austria from March 18 to 24, 2017. The games will be her fifth appearance in a U.S. or world event. Coughlin will compete in the snowshoe events. (Submitted photo)
Christy Coughlin will join athletes from 110 nations at the Special Olympics World Winter Games in Austria from March 18 to 24, 2017. The games will be her fifth appearance in a U.S. or world event. Coughlin will compete in the snowshoe events. (Submitted photo)

MINOT, N.D.-A dedicated athlete, Christy Coughlin of Minot sets the bar high for herself as a Special Olympics competitor and ambassador.

In October, Coughlin was inducted into the North Dakota Special Olympics Hall of Fame for past accomplishments. She's not ceasing to inspire, though. Rather, she's ramped up her training program as she prepares to join nearly 3,000 other athletes from 110 nations at the Special Olympics World Winter Games in Austria from March 18 to 24, 2017.

The games will be her fifth appearance in a U.S. or world event.

Coughlin will compete in the snowshoe events, but there's hardly been a sport that Coughlin hasn't tried and enjoyed over the years.

"I started when I was 15," Coughlin said. "I have been involved for over 22 years now."

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Coughlin, who has learning and hearing disabilities stemming from her premature birth, remembers learning about Special Olympics in middle school when she spotted a flier. It mentioned sports, and that was enough to catch her eye. She had participated in sports in school but described herself as a nerdy kid who was out of her element. Special Olympics, on the other hand, has been the perfect place for her.

"It's been my passion because I feel like I fit in," she said. "I felt so relaxed. I made a lot of new friends. I fit in that group. I belong to that group."

Coughlin first became involved in basketball, a sport that remains one of her favorites. She said she likes any sport that involves running.

"I am a long distance runner. I just enjoy running. It just relaxes you," she said. She's run three half-marathons and several 5-kilometer races. She also has participated on a bowling league outside of Special Olympics.

Within Special Olympics, she's competed in alpine skiing, volleyball, track, soccer, bowling, handball, swimming and snowshoeing. She took up snowshoeing three years ago.

"It was hard at first," she said. "I felt like I was a penguin or something when I first started."

However, she added, "It was fun. I really enjoyed it."

She caught onto the technique and was one of two North Dakotans recently selected to train in Vermont in December with the Special Olympics snowshoe team in preparation for the next World Games. The other North Dakota snowshoer is Wade Wintermeyer, Jamestown. Two other North Dakotans who plan to train in Vermont for the USA team are Katielynn Ovitt of Bottineau in alpine skiing and Dave Johs of Bismarck in cross country skiing. The 2017 Special Olympics World Games USA team is comprised of 150 athletes, 40 coaches and 20 support team members.

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One of the snowshoe team coaches will be Cindy Schopper of Valley City, who has worked with Coughlin previously as a track coach.

"She's kind of like a coach's dream, truly," Schopper said. "Christy will just try anything that you have set up for her for training. She's always up for any kind of challenge. She gives you just 100 percent all the time."

It's Coughlin's willingness to put in the time that enables her to compete at the national and international level, she added.

"She's successful because she really is dedicated to it," Schopper said. "She's not out there just for the exercise. She's out there because she knows what she wants and she wants to get to that point. She sets herself some really good goals."

Special Olympic athletes compete based on gender and abilities. Schopper said one of the most inspiring moments for her as a coach was watching Coughlin run with the male competitors as the only female at her level in the 10,000-meter (just over six miles) event in the 2010 USA Games. Lap after lap, she pounded it out against the stronger male competitors. Coughlin recalled that chasing the men wasn't the most excitement she's had in a race but she wasn't going to give up.

Coughlin participated in the World Games in North Carolina in 1999 in women's volleyball, finishing fifth with her team. In 2001, she participated in the World Games in Alaska in alpine skiing, finishing in third in one event and fourth in two other events. She traveled to Ireland in 2003 to take second in the 400-meter run and fourth in the running long jump. She was scheduled to run in a relay race as well but was forced to pull out after injuring her ankle in a fall.

At the USA Games in Nebraska in 2010, she finishing first in a mid-distance race as well as second in the running long jump.

Coughlin has been working out with a trainer at SOS Image to prepare for the World Games. Her opportunity to train in the snow will come in Vermont, although she's enjoyed snowshoeing in past winters in the Minot area.

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"I just felt so blessed," Coughlin said of the opportunities she has had with Special Olympics. "I am just so overjoyed. My family is overjoyed for me. They have supported me."

Coughlin was the first athlete to serve on the North Dakota Special Olympics board of directors. She served as a Special Olympics' global messenger, giving speeches in the community to raise money for the organization. She was selected as North Dakota Special Olympics' female athlete of the year in 1998. She also served a year on the N.D. State Rehabilitation Council.

After graduating from Minot High School in 2000, Coughlin studied culinary arts at Quentin Burdick Job Corps Center. She worked several years in dietary at Trinity Health and in 2003 began working for KALIX, where she currently is in a staff support position as a caregiver. She also is involved with the deaf ministry at Our Redeemer's Church in Minot.

Coughlin had learned sign language at a summer camp for deaf youth at age 13 and also learned to read lips. In 2006, she had a cochlear implant in one ear, which replaced the hearing aids she once wore. With the implant, she could hear a bird chirp and water running for the first time, she said.

Her disabilities have not detracted from her abilities on the court, track or slopes.

Coughlin said it's not just the joy of being physically active but the sportsmanship that makes Special Olympics so special to her. No matter who wins or loses, everyone shakes hands and hugs and then enjoys each other's company at the event's social activities, she said. Even when competing in world events with athletes who don't speak the same language, there's a sense of camaraderie.

That being said, Coughlin admits she's competitive. She intends to go to Austria and "bring home the Gold if I can."

Coughlin finds it hard to describe the good feeling she gets through participation in Special Olympics. The sense of achievement that results from her hard work is beyond words. Special Olympics lists its mission as bringing confidence and joy to special athletes, and those are qualities Coughlin exudes when she talks about her sports participation.

"I know I am a good role model," said Coughlin, who has role models of her own. Her inspiration comes from the older athletes she sees still competing at Special Olympics events. She's determined to keep at it, too, for as long as she can.

Christy Coughlin
Christy Coughlin

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