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A quest for medals — in Alaska

Andrew Leatham is excited about missing the next 10 days of school.

The manager of Logan High School's football, basketball and baseball teams is taking a trip to Anchorage, Alaska — where he gets to be the athlete.

Leatham is one of 10 Utahns who will compete in the Special Olympics World Winter Games, which start March 4 and end March 11. University of Utah football coach Ron McBride, a longtime Special Olympics supporter, saw the athletes off at a celebration at Salt Lake City International Airport Friday.

Leatham's overpowering grin spread across his face at the thought of snowshoeing in such a prestigious competition, but he bowed his head when the subject switched to the plane ride.

"I'm nervous. I've never been on a plane," Leatham said.

He takes solace in the support of Esther Page, Utah's other snowshoer. Both Page and Leatham have snowshoed for only two years, but that was all it took for them to win the gold medals in the men's and women's Special Olympic Utah competitions.

Page enjoys flying, taking particular pleasure from seeing the wing flaps move up and down, even if turbulence scares her a bit.

"I am very excited to check out Anchorage. I want to see what it is like," she said.

Page is a Special Olympics veteran. Starting in 1980, when she lived in Wyoming, she has competed in cross-country skiing, bowling, gymnastics, swimming and track and field. This is her first time making it to the pinnacle of Special Olympics competition.

"I am excited to compete against the world," she said.

The 10 Utahns will join the other 704 members of Team USA as they prepare to compete in the seventh Winter Games. The Special Olympics hosts sporting events for the mentally disabled on a similar four-year cycle as the Olympic Games.

More than 1,800 athletes participate in 17 different competitions in the statewide Games. The Special Olympics has about 1 million athletes internationally.

John Donnelly, executive director of Special Olympics Utah, selected Utah's contingent from the gold medal winners in the state Games one year ago. And each has undertaken a training program since.

Allison Moore has skied for seven years. She doesn't mind the training and loves the competition.

"I get to work out," Moore said.

The send-off party also acted as her 23rd birthday celebration. However, her mind wasn't focused on presents, but gold.

"I hope I get a medal. I think I can because (alpine skiing) is an easy thing to do," she said.

Moore is not the only one who plans to return with a medal or two.

"I expect some hardware when we come home," snowboarding coach Mike Rice said.

Rice will act as the liaison between the athletes and the public when he is not coaching. The Special Olympics are not solely about competition, but personal development as well, he said.

"Some are traveling for the first time. They will learn to be away from home, how to live in a hotel and hone their daily living skills," he said.

Making it to the Games was a lesson in itself. The athletes either held fund-raisers, found sponsors or paid their own expenses for the trip.

"How great is it to go to an incredible competition. They will have an unforgettable experience," Donnelly said.