GROTON – If you’re hitting the slopes at the Nashoba Valley Ski Area, Wachusett Mountain or Gunstock Mountain in New Hampshire this season, you might notice a group of blue snow jackets flocking the chairlifts and racing downhill.
On top of the skill and ease shown by the people wearing those jackets is a unity and friendship between them all.
That’s the environment supported by Robert and Judy Russell, the heads of the Nashoba Shooting Stars ski team.
For over 20 years, the Groton couple have been organizing the members of the team, finding volunteers to train with the team members, scheduling practices and competitions for the team to participate in.
This season – which has been a challenge due to warmer temperatures than normal – the team will have about 50 developmentally-challenged athletes either learning to ski or continuing to grow their skiing experience at events in collaboration with Special Olympics.
“We try to bring them up,” Judy said. “We just give them time and let them pull themselves together. You see the smiles on their faces when they come down the mountain. Watching them get their medals at the games, they’re just so excited.”
“We were helping out and we attracted good people,” Robert said. “The volunteers are the ones who make everything happen. It’s humbling to us to have a program like this. They anticipate our needs.”
The Russells came into their community service through their son, DJ. Judy said that she and Robert scheduled DJ for skiing lessons at the Nashoba Valley. DJ’s coaches, Margaret Wilson and Joan Gehrig, told Judy a year into the lessons about DJ possibly being on a Special Olympics team training at Wachusett Mountain with other local kids. That team eventually became the Nashoba Shooting Stars, headed by Wilson and Gehrig. But when they stepped down, no one was picked to take over. That’s when the Russells stepped up.
“Nashoba’s right here, they always have snow and they treat us great,” Robert said. “Wachusett treats us great too but Nashoba became easier to do. It was more workable.”
“My son loves to ski so we thought, ‘Well, why don’t we take over,’” Joan said.
Every winter season, the Russells coordinate numerous volunteers (last year the team had 83 volunteers) and multiple teammates (they have around 45 members on team so far) coming to four practices a week while also fundraising $22,955 to pay for lift tickets, uniforms and equipment for the team. Members of the Shooting Stars range in age from seven to 55, consisting of the annual influx of newcomers and returning skiers. The Russells also find local skiing competitions for the athletes to compete in, building on their experience.
Robert mentioned that for the last 16 years, the team has had at least one athlete participate in a world skiing competition. For example, Westford resident Chris O’Neil, won a bronze medal in the Advanced Super-G slalom skiing event at the 2017 Special Olympics World Winter Games in Schladming, Austria, representing his country and, of course, the Stars.
When it comes to training the team members, Joan said they pair different athletes with different volunteers for one-on-one practice.
“Our volunteers have to be very patient,” she added. “We’ll tell them an athlete’s strengths and how to communicate with them. They don’t have to be really good skiers as long as they can ski. We try to give them pointers.”
“They improve because our volunteers are passionate,” Robert said. “They want to make it a fun and safe day. We have to not disappoint the athletes. If we lose someone, we feel bad and we want to know what happened. We hope we didn’t let them down.”
Brian Arnold, a senior vice president and trade solutions consultant at Wells Fargo Bank in Boston, did his first season volunteering with the Stars last year. He said that he met the Russells during the 2018 Special Olympics Massachusetts Winter Games and was impressed by how organized and well-known the team was. Though a volunteer, he summed up his duties on the team as being a “chief encouragement officer.”
“It’s all about getting them motivated and excited about going on the lifts and doing competitions,” Arnold said. “You also have to focus on safety, keeping an eye on when it’s time to take a break if you’ve been out for too long.”
Arnold added that he enjoyed seeing and experiencing the friendship, athleticism and inclusion among the teammates.
“I get a lot more out of it than what I put in,” he said.
The season is set to start on Jan. 5 and will run to Mar. 16, though the Russells are still looking for volunteers to join the team this season.
“If we can get good volunteers, then we’re all set,” Robert said. “None of our volunteers want to be put on a pedestal. They do it because they love it and they want to help.”