Alpine skier to represent S.C. in Special Olympics Winter Games
When Katie Smith was in kindergarten, she never wanted to go inside after recess. One day, when her teachers had had enough, she was sent to the principal’s office. And as little Katie sat there waiting to be seen by the principal, she leaned over to the teacher waiting next to her and whispered, “Are you in trouble too?”
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That’s just one of many stories Katherine and Rick Smith like to tell of their sassy, outspoken, now 27-year-old daughter Katie, who is in Pyeong Chang, South Korea, to compete in the 2013 Special Olympics World Winter Games. The games begin today and end Feb. 5.
Katie was born with Down syndrome, but that doesn’t prevent her from living the active lifestyle of any other young woman. She is an alpine skier from a place that rarely sees snow, works two jobs, volunteers and lives on her own during the week.
“Someone has to pay the bills around here,” Katie joked. Her father is a retired area director for the Eli Lilly pharmaceutical company, and her mother is a retired teacher.
Katie is a part-time mail runner at McAngus, Goudelock and Courier Law Firm five days a week and has worked there for seven years. She volunteers at MUSC Children’s Hospital, putting together charts three days a week. She takes the Tel-A-Ride bus on her own to get to and from work.
On the weekends she goes home to Edisto Island with her parents to work at the Piggly Wiggly.
“I like to be busy because it makes the time go by faster,” she said.
When Katie is not working, she is training. She has been doing this for the past year to prepare for the winter games.
When she’s in the Lowcountry, she trains by playing sports, working out on her favorites, the elliptical trainer and treadmill, and by dancing and playing ski games on the Kinect.
She trains on snow in the Wolf Creek Ski Area in Colorado, where she has gone several times this winter to work on speed, control and turns. She has known her Colorado coach, Kelly Wilkerson, for 10 years.
“I bonded with her because she had a brother who had special needs,” Katie said. “She’s more of a friend than a coach.”
She also has trained in New York with other skiers representing the country, and in North Carolina, which they were told has snow similar to what they will find in South Korea.
“We have a very small group that’s eligible for the events. It’s not one of the larger events in South Carolina,” said Kelly Garrick, sports director for the Special Olympics of South Carolina.
Garrick said the state often collaborates with the North Carolina team. Katie flew with them from Charlotte to meet Team USA in Los Angeles before heading to South Korea.
Katie began skiing on family trips when she was 3. Her parents said skiing didn’t become her passion just because she enjoyed it.
“Once I got the hang of it, it came pretty easy to me,” Katie said.
What she liked most was competing with her brothers, Will and Jarred, spraying them with snow when she sped to the bottom of a hill and counting the amount of “nose-plants” each person made. According to Katie, her dad is in the lead.
The Smiths are firm believers in the Special Olympics motto: “Let me win, but if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt.” Rick Smith has worn a rubber bracelet his daughter-in-law gave him with the motto on it for several years, and he never takes it off.
“It’s impressive to see groups of kids with special needs with so much dedication,” Katherine Smith said while telling the story of an athlete at the last winter games in Idaho. He tore his Achilles but was determined to finish.
Katie said she is very thankful for the Special Olympics and her supportive family, including “the most incredible sister-in-laws anyone could ever ask for.”
“This has been a huge dream of mine. Everyone who has supported (the Special Olympics) is making my dreams come true,” she said.
And support, emotionally and financially, is something the Special Olympics looks for when selecting athletes to compete.
“It’s about making sure they have the community support to give them that edge,” Garrick said. “Katie’s family is so supportive, and so is the Charleston community.”
In her free time, the self-professed “clean freak” enjoys texting and getting her nails done. She typically gets them painted to match her ski gear, and thought of getting American flags on her fingernails for the games.
While Katherine Smith said Katie was more mischievous than both her sons growing up, Rick Smith said Katie is now a “leader among her peers.”
One day while the family was visiting a neighbor, Rick Smith noticed a woman crying.
“Oh, Lord. What has Katie done now?” he said to himself.
But these were not tears of sadness — they were tears of hope.
When he asked what happened, the woman, a mother of a toddler with Down syndrome, told him that she asked Katie what advice she could give her about raising her son.
“Never underestimate what we can do,” Katie replied.
Reach Jade McDuffie at 937-5560 or jmcduffie@ postandcourier.com.