Chris Vance is a towering Athabascan Native, devout Catholic and an honored Alaskan athlete.
Joining Special Olympics at age eight, he has competed athletically for most of the organization’s modern history.
Now 42, Vance was honored this summer by the Alaska Sports Hall of Fame for his role in helping to bring the 2001 Special Olympics World Winter Games to Anchorage.
Those games were recently inducted into the Hall of Fame for “invigorating Anchorage with the largest international sporting event ever staged in Alaska.” More than 1,800 Special Olympians competed at venues throughout the city that year.
Vance was a key promoter in securing the games. Unafraid of physical risks on the athletic field, he does remember being slightly nervous when testifying in front of the U.S. Congress to get the Games hosted in Anchorage. He recalls sitting in Ted Stevens’ seat on the Senate floor.
Special Olympics founder Kennedy Shriver attended the 2001 games in Anchorage just eight years before her death, declaring them “the best Winter Games in the history of Special Olympics.”
A permanent gallery featuring the event is installed at Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport in Anchorage.
Vance’s journey through Special Olympics has paralleled his growth into adulthood. His parents, Jim and Cecelia, attribute much of Chris’ maturity and strong sportsmanship to ‘Special O,’ as they call it.
The tight-knit Spenard family are longtime parishioners of Our Lady of Guadalupe Co-Cathedral, where Chris regularly serves at the altar. At more than six feet tall, the broad shouldered server towers over his fellow volunteers.
Faith and sportsmanship are pillars for the Vance family, who see Special Olympics as both a source of genuine competition and also a means of building virtue and lasting friendship.
Founded by iconic Catholic Eunice Kennedy Shriver, Special Olympics seeks to develop the physical perseverance of people with intellectual disabilities. The now-worldwide organization has been going strong since the late 1960s.
Chris has competed in bowling, skiing, snowboarding, power weightlifting, golf, swimming, horseback riding, basketball and cycling. Local Alaska events take place year-round and depend on the support of volunteer coaches and a devoted staff. Practices and training take place in gyms all around the city.
Chris is a veteran of Special Olympics’ “unified” program, which pairs disabled athletes with community members. Jim Vance reports that family friends who have taken the plunge and joined the Unified Teams, in golfing, for example, are surprised by the depth of their enjoyment. As if discovering their sport anew, teammates “can’t wait to go back,” according to Jim. Participation in Special Olympics carries no monetary cost for athletes — certain sports equipment can be purchased privately, but all necessities are provided through the organization.
Chris often sports a bold purple and black custom sports jersey across his shoulders, emblazoned with “Shark Man,” hinting at a fin and tooth-decorated helmet cover he wears while snowboarding.
“I was nicknamed by the Austrians,” Chris noted with a broad smile.
Jim chuckled, describing the theme music from the Jaws movie that is projected around the mountain slopes while Chris competes in snowboarding. Jim has also been a swim coach for many years, recruited straight from the locker room and given training on the logistics of coaching athletes of varying abilities. In each sport, Special Olympians are grouped according to their general ability, ensuring a true contest.
While Special Olympics is a mainstay for the Vance family, they are also deeply rooted in their Catholic faith.
Chris’ parents recall the family’s impetus for exploring the Catholic faith. It came in the form of an unexpected telephone call. At age 16, Chris worked as a dishwasher at Providence Alaska Medical Center, as part of Assets, a local agency for the integration of disabled Alaskans. Unbeknownst to his parents, Chris was attending daily Mass in the hospital’s campus chapel. A conscientious priest called the family home and inquired if Chris had been baptized; he had not. The priest encouraged Cecelia to seek baptism for her son. She was later received into the Catholic faith. Jim, a baptized Lutheran, also came into full communion two years later.
Under then pastor Father Leo Walsh, Chris became an altar server at Our Lady of Guadalupe. He answers emphatically when asked his favorite part of serving on the altar.
“Carrying that big crucifix,” he said. “I work for God and Jesus in the church.”
As for the intricacies of assisting at Mass, Chris explains, “I have it all in my head.”
Jim notes that the Knights of Columbus are vital financial supporters of Special Olympics. Both Vance men are Knights with the co-cathedral’s St. Juan Diego Council.
From the athletic world, Kikkan Randall and snowboarder Shaun White are favorites of Chris’. He also looks to Saint Christopher, both his namesake and a fellow adventurer.
“Chris is a wanderer,” observed Cecilia.
Chris recounts the highlights of traveling to Greece, remarking, “I’m a traveler.”
At home, Chris enjoys Star Wars, recently being surprised at Christmas with a kitten, whom he named Leia.
Of Athabascan heritage, he also attends a weekly drumming circle at Assets, led by fellow parishioner Buz Daney. Cecelia has observed the calming effect of drumming for her son, visibly relieving his anxiety. While he doesn’t have a medical diagnosis, Chris qualifies for Special Olympics due to developmental disabilities.
For a time, Special Olympics protocol directed that every competing athlete receive a medal. With the growth of the events often outpacing local budgets, that approach is being replaced by ribbons for participation and medals of distinction for higher placement.
Cecilia mused, “Even those who may seem unaware or unintelligent, they certainly know the difference between a ribbon and a medal!”
Especially tender for the Vance family is the fellowship with athletes’ families, who become like extended family. The community offers a sounding board to share concerns that most parents don’t ever face.
In the stands or on the sidelines, “Special O” parents are able to casually share their experiences and find guidance and comfort. When competing families have endured tragedy apart from Special Olympics, they find the years of established camaraderie have deep roots, Cecilia observed.
Jim noted that the mainstream sports world, while filled with inspiration, often suffers from a deficit of virtue. He wishes sincere sportsmanship could be taught to all athletes and is certain that Special Olympians could infuse their sincere sportsmanship to any arena, if given a chance.
Chris nods: “I have friends all around the world.”