By Luke Baynes
When Leah Boardman hits the ski slopes in Pyeongchang, South Korea on Jan. 29, she will be one of just four Vermonters among 157 Americans to participate in the 2013 Special Olympics World Games.
It’s a responsibility the 19-year-old Williston resident isn’t taking lightly.
“I am proud,” she said. “I want to win. I’ll do my best. But even if I don’t win a medal, that’s all right.”
Boardman is no stranger to medal ceremonies. A veteran of Special Olympics basketball, bocce, bowling and soccer competitions, she was chosen for the World Games by a drawing from a pool of alpine skiing gold medalists from the 2012 Special Olympics Vermont Winter Games at Suicide Six Ski Area in South Pomfret.
The 2013 Special Olympics World Games will serve as a precursor to the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, which previously fell short in host city bids for the 2010 and 2014 winter games held in Vancouver, Canada and Sochi, Russia.
Boardman’s mother, Susan Fayette, acknowledged the weight of her daughter’s honor.
“I’m sure it will be very emotional,” Fayette said. “They’re really being ambassadors to the United States when they go over there.”
Boardman works as a chef assistant at Pillsbury Senior Communities and is a student in the University of Vermont’s Think College program. She lives at The Whittle House, a community residence in Williston’s historic village for people with developmental disabilities.
Whittle House co-owner Sharon Whittle said that while Boardman was initially reluctant to take up ski racing, she stuck to her rule that playing at least two sports is a requirement for residency.
“If you don’t want to (play sports) you don’t have to live here. It’s one of our requirements, and it turned out to be a good one,” Whittle said. “It’s part of socializing, it’s part of strength-building, part of being healthy and making friends.”
Roland Luxenberg, Boardman’s ski coach, said he has noticed an improvement in her attitude and discipline over the past year.
“Definitely her approach to skiing is different from last year,” Luxenberg said. “At The Whittle House, Sharon really encourages participation, but I’m sure the selection to the (World Games) has really made her see the benefits of participating and enjoying it while you’re doing it.”
Boardman almost had to bow out from the World Games due to a meniscus tear in her left knee suffered during a basketball game last summer. She refused surgery and instead opted for physical therapy.
“It didn’t stop me. I let it heal on its own,” Boardman said. “The pain comes and goes. Some days I’m fine, and some other days it hurts.”
When asked what advice she would give to other aspiring athletes, Boardman suggested that there can indeed be gain from pain.
“Try your best and don’t give up,” she offered to future Olympians. “Even though there’s times I do get tired, I still keep going.”