Wisps of icy air swirled away from April Stone’s mouth as she waited in frigid Aspen, Colorado, for her athlete to begin the snowboarding course. The athlete, a participant in the 2015 ESPN X-Games Special Olympics Unified Dual Slalom event, was panicking. Despite months of training and practices, the steep drop-off at the start gate had her crying and terrified she wouldn’t make it. She hadn’t completed a warm-up run yet, so Stone pulled her aside.
“I told her that I wouldn’t ask her to try anything she couldn’t do,” Stone said. “Then I reminded her of the athlete oath. We said it together, and I told her that she made a promise to be brave in giving the oath. I didn’t ask her to win; I asked her to be brave.”
The athlete recovered and managed to complete a warm-up run — one of the best runs Stone had seen the athlete finish. She said it was one of the bravest things she’s ever seen anyone do. Sarah Arts, director of sports and programs for Special Olympics Alaska, said scenes like that are the norm with Stone.
“April has a special way of connecting to Special Olympics athletes. She is patient when coaching them and expects greatness from them,” Arts said. “April treats our athletes as if they were Olympic athletes, not Special Olympics athletes — which is exactly the way they should be and want to be treated.”
On the course to law school
But Stone doesn’t only push athletes to do their best on the slopes. Like a snowboarding course, her journey to Willamette University College of Law, where she is a first-year student, has been a winding and sometimes difficult path.
Alana Williamson, fundraising chair for the Anchorage Community of Special Olympics Alaska, said Stone has overcome a lot in life and dealt with many things most people don’t experience.
“April had her daughter, Shailynn, when she was a teenager. She has done everything in her power, as a single mom, to ensure that Shailynn has the normal, positive and loving upbringing that April didn’t,” Williamson said. “She has always had a full-time job while going to school full-time, still offering the large amount of time required for Special Olympics, and on top of that, made sure that Shailynn can do the things she loves, like cheerleading and gymnastics.”
For 10 years after having Shailynn, Stone worked as a paralegal in personal injury and insurance defense until she decided to go to law school herself. Now at Willamette, she’s working to complete a bachelor’s degree and a law degree in six years instead of the usual seven.
“Special Olympics taught me that when faced with a challenge, rather than choose a different path, I should double my effort,” Stone said. “Failure is a lesson to be learned, not something to be feared.”
A participant in the school’s 3+3 Program, Stone began her studies in her hometown of Anchorage, Alaska, at the University of Alaska Anchorage. She spent three years there before moving to Salem to begin law school. She will receive her undergraduate degree in justice in May of 2017 and will have already finished her first year as a law student.
Studying and snowboarding
In Salem, Stone said she’s not currently coaching a local team, though she volunteered time with the Multnomah, Clackamas and Washington County Special Olympics snowboard teams. However, her distance from Alaska and her busy schedule aren’t keeping her from her next challenge: coaching the US National snowboarding team going to the Special Olympics World Winter Games in Schladming, Austria.
Stone and the team, made up of six athletes from around the US, fly to Europe in mid-March for the competition. As head coach, she developed a dry land training program, keeps in touch with the athletes and their local coaches to ensure they are training and coached the team at the Special Olympics USA training camp held in December of 2016 in Killington, Vermont.
When she came home from that, still on winter break from law school, Stone also found time to be there for Williamson, who was recently diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis and had to begin monthly drug infusions and chemotherapy.
“As soon as April found out, she was there for me, always checking in and giving support. When she came home for Christmas break, and I had an infusion, all I had to do is mention it and she was there the entire time and afterwards,” Williamson said. “I don’t think she realizes how much that she has done for me. I am really lucky to have her in my life — she is honestly the best person I know.”
Arts has a similar view of Stone, saying she excels in all aspects of her life.
“April is one of the most driven and dedicated persons I know,” Arts said. “She is kindhearted and is always putting others before herself.”
Despite investing time in friends, with her daughter and in studying, Stone said the time commitment to the Special Olympics isn’t too much for her, especially since each athlete has a local coach. However, with the trip in March, she said she’ll have to remain disciplined to stay on top of homework.
“Two weeks off is a long time to take away from law school,” she said. “If I am nervous about anything, it’s taking that much time away from school.”
Ready to go
Nerves aside, Stone said she is ready for the Winter Games. The US delegation is made up of about 150 athletes. Athletes from more than 80 countries will compete in snowboarding, alpine skiing, cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, floor hockey, figure skating and speedskating. Stone’s six athletes will compete in alpine events such as the giant slalom and super G, which include racing through gates on a downhill course.
“Every one of them improved their race times on every run during training camp,” Stone said, “so I am excited to see the additional progress they will make before the games.”
This will be Stone’s third major competition, with the 2015 X-Games and 2013 Special Olympics World Winter Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea, behind her. After doing some sightseeing around Austria, her team will compete from March 18-24. With all she’s accomplished personally, she’s most looking forward to seeing her athletes finish.
“Watching an athlete compete at the World Games is watching the culmination of a lifetime of perseverance, determination and courage, condensed into mere seconds,” Stone said. “The sense of pride and accomplishment that exudes from athletes as they conclude a competitive event is an incredible thing to witness.”
Her graduation from law school in 2019 promises to be the same.