Special Olympic Pa. athlete Matt McConnell of Northampton County reacts to finishing his Alpine Slalom Immediate race up-right on Monday, February 10, 2020.

CHAMPION – When Tim Spence steps into the gate prior to his alpine skiing race he talks himself up and focuses on nothing but having a clean run and making it to the finish line.

"I tell myself not to fall and have control of my skis," the Butler County athlete said Monday after completing a run. "I really just like to ski and going fast."

As Special Olympics Pennsylvania Winter Games kicked off Monday, more than 300 athletes competing in alpine skiing, snowboarding, cross-country skiing and snowshoeing took to the slopes at Seven Springs Mountain Resort in the hopes of winning gold medals.

"You go out there to have fun and just enjoy the games," said Spence, who has been skiing since 1994. "I like being with friends and making new ones."

Mike Ermer, SOPA’s competition director for the western region, said the vibe throughout the Winter Games is positive – and athletes, coaches, staff and volunteers are excited to be at Seven Springs to take part in the festivities.

"This year is our 50th anniversary and our medals have the anniversary logo on them and the ribbons are new, so that's fun and exciting," he said. "And snowboarding has been elevated from a demonstration sport to an emerging sport and it's building momentum.

"The athletes are fired up and ready to compete and show off what they can do."

Maritsa Larsen, a snowshoe athlete from Northampton County, was competing in the Winter Games for the first time.

"It looked like fun and I want to win a gold medal," she said prior to her race at the resort's golf course. "It's not too hard to do. You just buckle them up and you go."

She said the games are a chance to meet new people.

"I'm making friends and I get to compete with my roommate," Larsen said.

Northampton County resident Steven Crew also was competing in snowshoe for the first time.

"I wanted to try something new," he said. "I did softball in the spring, but this my first Winter Games."

Crew said when he goes out to race, he tells himself to keep on moving and go as fast as he can.

"I hope to get either a medal or ribbon," he said. "It's fun to be here."

Hannah Keranko was volunteering with the games for a second year.

"The atmosphere and the athletes are great," the Washington County resident said. "It's all positive and fun to be around everyone. It's just a good time."

Keranko said her job is to help athletes get ready for their runs and to offer support throughout the competition.

"The athletes love being out there and I tell them they've got this," she said. "It's such a good experience and I want to continue doing this. I want to see them grow as athletes and they're always happy to see us."

In addition, the Winter Games hosts the Healthy Habits program, where interactive education stations will help build awareness of how diet and exercise can affect sports performances and everyday life. Health and fitness coordinators are on site to discuss nutrition and healthy food options.

"Our hope is the athletes are healthy and out there doing their best while competing, so we can have quality competitions for our finals," Ermer said. "They go out there and want to win a gold medal, but their main goal is to do their best, have fun and see their friends and the other athletes do their best as well."

Following competition on Tuesday, the games will wrap up with closing ceremonies at each competition site.

Kelly Urban is a reporter for The Tribune-Democrat. She can be reached at (814) 532-5073. Follow her on Twitter @KellyUrban25.

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