Special Olympics athlete Daina Shilts threw her hands in the air, let out a loud whoop, shared a megawatt smile to fans in the stands at Schladming/Rorhmoos-Hockwurzen ski slope, and sent a resounding message to the world: "I did it! This is inclusion. I am included!" Moments before, Shilts laid down a spectacular Advanced Women's Super G run in Snowboarding at Special Olympics World Games in Austria.
Amid the cheering crowds were Shilts' parents, sister, aunt, uncle and niece, who were pressed against the snow fencing course dividers and wildly cheering for Daina. They came to Austria from Wisconsin and Oklahoma. The family said her brother, who could not make the trip, was cheering from home.
"It was amazing," Shilts said, "I stayed low and tight and kept my arms in and stayed on my edges. I did my best. I've worked very hard."
That hard work paid off with two gold medals for the 26-year-old athlete from Neillsville, Wisconsin – one in the Super G and then one in the Advanced Giant Slalom.
She had another validation of inclusion when she participated in a Unified Sports Experience at Snowboarding. Special Olympics athletes teamed up with unified partners to compete together. Shilts' partner was two-time Olympic snowboarding champion, Hannah Teeter. This power duo gave them both another gold medal.
Jan Shilts said she and her husband have watched every one of her daughter's competitions over the past 18 years. "Daina has blossomed with Special Olympics. Inclusion is huge," said her mother, "Every person has a gift and Special Olympics lets Daina share hers. It's wonderful."
Success for Shilts has not always been easy. She experienced and overcame some very difficult years in school where students bullied and taunted her and where her teachers told her to forget college, saying she'd never be able to make it. Special Olympics changed all that for the young woman who grew up in a rural community in central Wisconsin. "Special Olympics has been a huge part of our lives," said her mother, "Daina has proven all of them wrong. She's accomplished so much more than anyone imagined. I am so proud of her."
After the World Games, Shilts will return to her work as a licensed Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA). She cares for 4-5 people who have intellectual disabilities and volunteers for the Wisconsin Early Autism Project (WEAP).
"When Daina started volunteering at WEAP, she said, 'Mom, I relate to the children who have autism. I can communicate with them and help them.' She enjoys her work," she said.