Austria will welcome 2,600 Special Olympics athletes from 106 nations to compete in nine Olympic-type winter sports for the 2017 World Winter Games. Michigan will have six athletes among Special Olympics USA's 150 athlete delegation.
Want to know how Michigan's Special Olympics USA athletes are doing in Austria? Click here or the headline above for updated results once the Games begin.
Special Olympics USA members from Michigan
Michigan is sending six athletes to the 2017 World Winter Games in Austria: Nikota Easterling (Grand Haven, Cross-Country Skiing), Chloe Fox (Grosse Pointe Woods, Alpine Skiing), Nickolas Hilton (Lansing, Snowshoeing), Joe Kaczynski (Midland, Cross-Country Skiing), Jessica Manees (Northville, Snowshoeing) and Leslie Venema (Dimondale, Cross-Country Skiing).
In addition to the six athletes, Special Olympics Michigan will also send one coach and two management team members to Austria: Maciej Litkowiec (Clinton Township, Alpine Skiing Assistant Coach), Heather Burke (Rockford, Alpine Skiing Sport Manager) and Aaron Mills (Mt. Pleasant, Communications Director).
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Nikota Easterling (Grand Haven), Cross-Country Skiing
Grand Haven, MI
Grand Haven native Nikota Easterling has competed with Special Olympics Michigan for 10 years. This will be her first World Games experience, but she also competes year-round in events including bowling and swimming. Easterling and her siblings, Lewis and Sarah, were all adopted and all three also compete with Special Olympics Michigan. Easterling was two days old when she was adopted along with her biological sister, Sarah from the Grand Rapids area. She suffered from motor delays as a baby and a rare mitochondrial disorder combination in which she and Sarah are the only two in the world known to have. Her mother, Brenda Easterling shared that Nikota has overcome many of the issues and even received a "Make a Wish" trip because of it. Brenda and her Husband have taken in five children from foster care over the past 20 years. Brenda was a special education teacher in Grand Haven until she stepped down to take care of the children full-time and is now back substitute teaching. Easterling is extremely excited to compete in the World Games and travel to Austria where she plans to practice her German.
Chloe Fox (Grosse Pointe Woods), Alpine Skiing
Grosse Pointe Woods, MI
Chloe Fox is a member of Special Olympics USA competing in alpine skiing. The Grosse Pointe Woods native has been a part of Special Olympics for four years. She got involved with Special Olympics through her best friend's parents who are skiing coaches. While Fox has been skiing for about five years now, she also bowls, swims, and plays basketball for Special Olympics. In her spare time, Fox works at Kroger as a clerk. Attending the World Games is important to Fox because it's her first time. "It means everything to me," Fox said. Special Olympics has been able to make Chloe come out of her shell. "I used to be a loner and very quiet, but now I'm more outgoing and social," she said. This experience has made her very excited and bubbly. When she goes to the World Games, she looks forward to meeting other athletes the most. "I also look forward to having the time of my life," Fox said. "I'm really proud of the whole Special Olympics team."
Nick Hilton (Lansing), Snowshoeing
Lansing's Nick Hilton is ready for the World Games spotlight. "Once I go to Austria, I hope the cameras are rolling and the news people will be talking about it because I want all of my friends in the city of Lansing to be watching me," says Hilton. At 24-years-old, Hilton is on track to receive his certificate of completion from the Beekman Center in Lansing in 2018 - a feat for which he's very proud. Nick loves to run, which is what compelled him to try snowshoeing in the first place. And after taking home gold at the Special Olympics Michigan State Winter Games over the past few years, he can't wait to give it his all against some of the World's best snowshoe athetes. "I'm coming home with the gold and we're having a really big party when I come back!" ESPN will feature Nick as part of the network's coverage of the 2017 World Winter Games in March.
Joe Kaczynski (Midland), Cross-Country Skiing
Joe Kaczynski was introduced to the world of Special Olympics at age eight. Over the years, he's competed in gymnastics, basketball, track and field, softball, soccer and cross country skiing. And now, at age 32, he's preparing for his second Special Olympics World Games. Joe's first time as a member of Special Olympics USA came back in 2003 as a long distance runner where he captured three bronze medals in Ireland. Running is a family affair for the Kaczynskis. Joe's older brother and sister were both runners, and Joe ran track and cross country in high school. And now, 14 years after his last World Games experience, Joe will suit up for Special Olympics USA's cross country skiing team. "I've been doing a lot of running, trying to push up my miles so I can be in really good shape," says Joe, who runs year-round, and also trains on a Nordic Track to help perfect his cross country skiing form. Kaczynski's been in big races before, which is something he says will help him in Austria. "Sometimes when I go to events I'm nervous, but it doesn't show. Once that race starts, I get myself relaxed and just go until I hit the finish."
Jessica Manees (Northville), Snowshoeing
Jessica Manees is a Special Olympics athlete from Northville who has a love for snowshoeing. Jessica has been a Special Olympics Michigan athlete since high school when she first learned about Special Olympics. Jean Manees, Jessica's mother, stated that she continues to promote Special Olympics since they focus on gaining friendships and comradery, wanting people with intellectual disabilities to feel comfortable within a team setting. Over the eight years of Jessica being an athlete, Jean has continued to see her grow stating that "Special Olympics has brought Jessica out of her shell and it has just made her more confident and social." Jessica also participates in basketball annually where she enjoys being surrounded by her teammates who continue to inspire her to be the best athlete she can be. "Seeing her do well in a sport she loves and just witnessing her make so many accomplishments has made me proud as a mother," said Jean.
Leslie Venema (Dimondale), Cross-Country Skiing
Leslie Venema is a Special Olympics athlete from Dimondale who will be participating in Cross-Country Skiing at the 2017 World Winter Games in Austria. As a Special Olympics athlete, Leslie feels excited and honored as her 20 years of hard work and dedication has led her to this great achievement. Leslie stated that she feels privileged to represent her country as a cross-country skier and is ready to compete as well as create new friendships while experiencing the beauty of Austria. Although cross-country skiing is her favorite sport, Leslie has annually competed in swimming and basketball. "I just love being around my teammates, they have inspired me in so many ways," Leslie said. At the age of 12, she knew she wanted to become a dedicated athlete of Special Olympics Michigan, stating that "they stand for a good cause, encouraging people to be the best that they can truly be." She also says that Special Olympics has taught her to be more responsible and independent. By gaining those qualities, Leslie is currently employed at a local daycare center and attends special training on becoming a global ambassador. In 2014, Leslie even traveled to Washington, D.C. to meet the Representatives of Michigan, with whom she shared her experiences with about being an athlete. "I have created a paper train calendar to count the days till Austria, I am just so excited," Leslie said as she shared her enjoyment of accomplishing her goal of finally being a member of the Special Olympics US National Team.
Coaches and Management Team
Clinton Township, MI
Mt. Pleasant, MI