Huntington High snowshoe team headed to state Special Olympics

Students at Huntington High School practiced, at Fleets Cove Beach in Centerport, for the snowshoeing event in the Special Olympics New York State Winter Games in Syracuse at the end of February. (Credit: Johnny Milano)

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"Go! Go! Go!"

Athletes in Sochi aren't the only Olympic participants hearing those words of encouragement.

Such shouts have recently been directed at the Huntington High School snowshoe team as it practices for the New York State Special Olympic Winter Games in Syracuse that start Friday.

While this winter's heavy snowfall has added a realistic touch to the team's snowshoe training, members mostly run on a sandy beach.

"Practicing on the sand builds up a lot of muscle strength," said team coach Linda Costello-Roth, district chairwoman for special education for grades 7 through 12. "It's to our advantage because the snow at the events is more packed. The snow upstate is very, very different than what we have here."

The program director for the Long Island region of the Special Olympics sought out Costello-Roth three years ago with the idea of putting together a team. Costello-Roth asked athletes who were already on her high school floor-hockey team to participate. In the past two years the team has won 35 medals in 36 events.

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This year's team -- Brendan Cribben, 24; John Cronin, 18; Liam Mrotzek 17; and Andrew Oh, 19 -- braved the early cold for a recent Saturday practice, trudging through the snow to reach the sandy banks of Fleets Cove Beach in Centerport.

Bundled up against temperatures that hovered in the teens, they donned the cumbersome snowshoes and walked, sprinted and ran relays in the sand as Costello-Roth, and their parents, shouted encouragement and instructions.

Mrotzek said being on the team is a chance to hang out with friends and exercise to stay in "tiptop" shape.

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"I love running around," he said. "Our coach is the best; she tells us that we can't sit around all day and we have to work out."

Cribben agreed and added, "Coach is fun and teaches me how to run."

This weekend's competition has Cronin inspired, he said. "I'm really impressed with snowshoeing and my teammates."

Parents of team members said they like the uniqueness of the sport because it offers both individual and team achievement, and provides opportunity for their children to blossom.

"Sports are important in children's lives and just because he has special needs doesn't mean they shouldn't have sports in their lives," Laura Mrotzek said. Her husband, Robert Mrotzek, said his son has grown more responsible and confident.

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"He went from being a couch potato to knowing where his hockey gear and snowshoes are," Robert Mrotzek said. "And he loves getting his medals."

Diane Oh said that her son has overcome some shyness since joining the snowshoe and the floor-hockey teams.

"Now he is really coming into 'I know what to do now,' " she said. "It's nice they have their own sport and they compete against other teams. It's just fun for them."

Cronin's mother, Carol Schlitt, said the young men work together and support one another because they recognize what's at stake.

"They have that desire to win just like a typical kid," she said.

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Other teams often react to the Huntington competitors with skepticism, Schlitt said.

"They are all very dismissive of a team from Long Island that usually does not have snow and practices on sand," she said. "It gets our competitive juices going."

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