Peter Cooper Village athlete Zach Elder (pictured at right) with his older brother Douglas (Photo by Karen Elder)
Resident wins medal in X Games Special Olympics
By Maria Rocha-Buschel
When Peter Cooper resident Zach Elder declared at age 9 that he wanted to learn to snowboard, his parents were shocked.
Elder is autistic and his mother Karen said that up to that point, her son was not very verbal, “never saying anymore than he needed to say to get the point across,” she said. But Elder was determined to snowboard, and that willpower to learn the sport paid off: he’s now 20 and on January 28, won a silver medal at the X Games in Aspen in the Special Olympics Unified Sports snowboarding event.
Elder, who has been competing in races since age 13 and who said his idol, Olympic and X Games gold medalist Shaun White, inspired him to learn the sport, is a member of a team with the Adaptive Sports Foundation, a non-profit organization offering outdoor physical activities and education for individuals with physical and cognitive disabilities and chronic illnesses. Although Elder trains at ASF, which is about an hour south of Albany, he has deep roots in Peter Cooper Village. His father, Richard, grew up in Peter Cooper and went to Stuyvesant High School when it was still in the neighborhood.
“My mom is 91 and still lives there,” he said.
The event at the X Games is a partnership between the games and the Special Olympics that first took place last year, which Elder also participated in, winning a bronze medal with snowboarder Scotty James. Last year’s event marked the first time that Special Olympics athletes competed during the X Games.
The race that the teams compete in for the event consists of a dual slalom, in which the snowboarders zigzag down a hill between a series of poles. The Special Olympics athletes compete against each other, followed by a race between the X Games athletes, and the times for the two races are combined for their total.
Elder and the athlete he was paired with, X Games gold medalist Danny Davis, clocked a time of 36.8 in their second-place run, less than a second behind gold medalists Chris Klug and Henry Meece.
X Games gold medalist and snowboarder Danny Davis with PCV resident Zach Elder in Aspen after their race
Olympian and X Games champion Hannah Teter got the idea for the program while she was on a panel in 2013 at the Special Olympics World Winter Games in South Korea discussing how to get Special Olympics athletes more involved in youth sports, USA Today reported in January. Teter felt that the X Games would be the perfect platform and a partnership with ESPN made it happen more quickly than she expected, debuting at the games last January as the Special Olympics Unified Snowboard Race.
Karen said that snowboarding has been a huge part of her son’s life since he started about 10 years ago. He actually started out as a skier but after he made the decision to learn snowboarding, Karen started brainstorming with other parents about how to get other kids involved, which resulted in the Ride 2 Live program. She worked with Vince Passione, one of Zach’s instructors, to create the program, which helps beginners get acquainted with the sport. Ride 2 Live is separate from the classes at ASF and is only held once a year on a weekend when groups of about 10 kids head out each day to learn about the sport.
“When you have a child that’s autistic, the biggest thing to worry about is, ‘how is my child going to be in public?’” she said. “A lot of parents are gun shy about this and some are concerned about their kids acting out, but these instructors are trained to work with kids with autism. What (the parents) end up realizing is that this is a great place just to come to and by the end of it, they get to see their child riding on a snowboard and they’re amazed.”
Karen said that Elder had previously tried getting involved in other extracurricular activities at school but there was nothing that really grabbed his attention until snowboarding.
“Snowboarding has helped him in everything he does,” she said. “It has given him a sense of purpose. Kids with autism don’t have a sense about themselves. It’s really how he defines himself first.”
She added that the teamwork aspect is another important component for Elder and other kids with autism who participate in this or any sport.
“That social part of the equation with kids that are autistic is so important,” she said. “The kids work at it and help each other, and they don’t need to be reminded. It’s a genuine part of their personal repertoire and that’s one of the really big extras to this whole thing. They develop empathy with each other, which is difficult when you have autism. It’s not just about sense of self but sense of others. Being on a team is something that’s really important.”
Elder was satisfied with his second place finish in the event in Aspen but he still has one driving factor that motivates him to participate next year.
“I have to try one more time,” he said. “I want to try for that gold medal.”
As excited as Elder was about racing with an X Games snowboarder, Davis was just as enthusiastic about the experience.
“Being partnered with Zach made it such a great experience and fired me up for anything Special Olympics related in the future,” Davis said. “It was really fun to race some gates and see the passion that Zach had for snowboarding and winning. His enthusiasm was something I admire and respect and also put a smile on my face for the rest of the week.”