By Rich Elder, Zach’s dad
At the 2018 X Games in Aspen, CO the team of Gretchen Bleiler and Zachary Elder competed in the Special Olympics Unified Slalom event at the X games in Aspen. They competed fearlessly and unfortunately missed the podium by 1/10th of a second and first place by only 5/10ths of a second. It was truly an exciting race with comradery and fierce competiveness. Gretchen was marvelous and what I found out in speaking with her several times and watching her with my son and the other competitors is that she is truly a wonderful person with a big heart. She is also very, very, very fast. This is my third time at this event and by far she gave Chris Klug (another great person) a scare, something I had not seen in the other past races. I hope Zach has the opportunity to race with her again in the future, regardless of the outcome, as she truly represents the ideal of an athlete and a good person who wants to help others.
As for my son Zachary, I have never been more proud. He gave it his all, a strong pull, driving his turns and stretching for the finish line. No one could have done more and on a different day the outcome may have been different. However, that is the world of sport and alpine racing.
What I am really proud about my son however is his interview that went out on worldwide video on ESPN where he spoke about promoting Unified sports, how he helped put together the first unified snowboard race outside of the X Games last year in New York at Windham Mountain and again this year on February 11th. A great event in partnership with USASA, The Catskill Mountain Series, Special Olympics and the Adaptive Sports Foundation. Since the first race, USASA has now officially opened the Cognitive classification in all of it’s series. He also spoke about Ride 2 Live, a program founded by Zach with Vince Passione and Zach’s mother Karen, to teach Autistic Children to snowboard. Zach and his family and friends all know the benefit that can be achieved from this sport.
Had you told me when Zach was 2 years old and just diagnosed, that 20 years later he would be in the X Games speaking about helping others I would have been crying for a different reason that day. He is truly special.
I also have to give kudos to Zach’s Special Olympics Coach, “big sister”, friend and a person who will always be a member of our family, Meghan Hughes. She and Zach have been riding together for 11 years and had she accomplished nothing else in life she has changed the life of one young man and we will always be grateful that this angel came into our life. Meghan has already accomplished so much more as she is now President of the Adaptive Sports Foundation Young Professionals and has recently received her Masters in Education from Harvard. We are truly blessed to have her as part of the family.
We also had the Director or the Northeast Snowboard team, Frank Cabrerra, and the head of the Hunter Mountain Gate Training program, Dave Hirschberg, giving their time and energy to help Zach become a better rider. Let me tell you, these men are fantastic coaches and truly want to see all of these athletes do well. I have learned so much about the fine points of alpine racing listening to these men, I have seen the results with Zach and the results with riders without disabilities. These guys can coach. They do this out of love for the all of these athletes when they could just as easily be out coaching “regular” (and goofy) riders. But these are men who run towards a fire and not away from it. Thank you both from the bottom of my heart.
Bob Basil, Vice President of USASA was here representing both USASA and the Catskill Mountain Series. Bob and his family, Jessica and Marie, have made unified sports a reality in the world of snowboarding. This is a very special man with modesty about all he has accomplished in the sport. Almost every weekend in the winter Zach and his teammates are competing in races with men and women, boys and girls of all ages on the same course at the same time as part of the Catskill Mountain Series. You cannot get more unified than what happens at these events. Snowboarders get a bad rap at some mountains but I can tell you from experience there is no more accepting and helping group of people than snowboarders and no one that has done more for cognitive riders than Bob. We were also fortunate to have Mia Wheeler, the President of USASA, attending. He saw the abilities of these athletes and just as he has been an avid supporter of Para-Olympics I believe he sees the potential to engage our population. I thank him for coming.
The snowboard community is truly a great place. When my son was contemplating the meaning of 1/10th of a second, Jeremy Jones reached out to him in the Athletes Lounge as well as Chris Klug. Those of you who know their stories know what overcoming adversity means. They helped put it all in perspective for Zach and it just shows the type of individuals who are in this sport.
Zach and I also want to wish Andre Berg and Danny Davis well. These two athletes were supposed to compete in the race but had to withdraw due to injury. Talk about disappointment
Special Olympics has been great to sponsor this race with ESPN, building on an idea and the hard work of Hannah Teter. It is a wonderful event, showcasing the very normal fire and drive of these special competitors. I thank them for not making our athletes feel special but to just be members of the larger athletic community.
Editra Allen of Special Olympics International deserves great thanks for making this event appear seamless. It takes a very special individual to make such a large event appear easy. I know it is not easy and I thank her. I also want to thank Shelly Nangle and the team from Special Olympics New York, especially Stacy Eder and about 2 dozen others who have touched Zach’s life. What a great group.
Back in our home town I have to thank Glenna and the rest of the team at the 14th Street Y who have helped to develop Zach’s chiseled physique. I know they will continue to help Zach as he continues to drive for the gold. It wouldn’t be worth the effort if it were easy. I also want to thank the folks At Modells, where Zach has a part time job and who have been so supportive of his quest.
I cannot end this note without thanking the hundreds of volunteers and staff at the Adaptive Sports Foundation at the Windham Mountain resort in Windham, New York who have touched Zach’s life since he started at the ASF when he was six. I especially want to thank its founder, Gwenn Allard who was our first contact with the program, Coach Mary Bozzone who started the Adaptive Race team and had the foresight to add the first of many snowboarders to the team, The Board of Directors who supplies funding and guidance, and Vince Passione who started the snowboard program and who now, in his spare time, is Chairman of the ASF. Along with Vince I want to thank all of the other riders such as Ricky, Brendan, Ed, Joe, Matt, Dre, Mat and Carrie who have spent hours and days on the slopes, rain, snow or shine, to make Zach the rider he is today as well as the indoor volunteers such as Bonsai, Noreen, Pat, Jay, Mary, Anita and the countless others who have embraced our family.
His race team teammates mean so much to Zach and continue to push Zach. It is great to have friends.
Finally, I want to say how thankful I am to have such a wonderful wife Karen, and my other son , and a great brother, Douglas who are constantly helping Zach to become a better person. Everyone should be as lucky as I am.
Again, congratulations to Gretchen and Zach for demonstrating the heart of champions and the willingness to help others !