Wisps of icy air swirl away from April Stone’s mouth as she waits 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, is panicking and crying. Despite months of training and practices, she’s terrified by the steep drop-off at the start gate.
Stone pulls her aside to offer a warm and compassionate pep talk.
“I told her that I wouldn’t ask her to try anything she couldn’t do,” Stone says. “Then we said the athlete oath together — ‘Let me win. But if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt.’”
The athlete not only recovered, but completed one of her best runs as a warm-up.
Sarah Arts, director of sports and programs for Special Olympics Alaska, says 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 says. “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.”
Like snowboarding, Stone’s path to Willamette University College of Law, where she is now a second-year student, has been winding and, at times, difficult. Thanks to lessons she learned from Special Olympics, she’s demonstrated her own fortitude along the way.
As she explains, “Special Olympics taught me that when faced with a challenge, rather than choose a different path, I should double my effort.”
Stone grew up socioeconomically disadvantaged. She became a single mom and dropped out of high school when she was a teenager. Yet, she raised her daughter, Shailynn, while working and going to college full-time, as well as coaching for Special Olympics.
“Everyone has an activity that takes their mind off of their worries, keeps them centered or gives them peace. Special Olympics is mine,” she explains. “Special Olympics puts things into perspective; it reminds me that no matter how great the challenge I face, it pales in comparison to the challenges of so many people.”
For 10 years after having Shailynn, Stone worked as a paralegal in personal injury and insurance defense. Knowing she couldn’t advance in the legal profession or feel satisfied in her work without a law degree, she decided she would go to law school. First, she had to complete her undergraduate degree.
Thanks to Willamette’s 3+3 Program, Stone is able to complete a bachelor’s and a law degree in six years instead of the usual seven. She began her studies in her hometown of Anchorage, Alaska, at the University of Alaska Anchorage, spending three years there before moving to Salem for law school. In May, she received her undergraduate degree in justice from UAA and finished her first year as a law student at Willamette at the same time, applying her 1L law credits as electives to earn her bachelor’s degree.
One of 11 in her undergraduate class to receive the honor magna cum laude, Stone was the highest-achieving justice major.
In Salem, Stone isn’t currently coaching for Special Olympics, though she has volunteered with the Multnomah, Clackamas and Washington County teams. However, her distance from Alaska and her busy schedule didn’t keep her from an exciting spring challenge: coaching the U.S. National Special Olympics snowboarding team at the World Winter Games in Schladming, Austria.
Stone and the team, made up of six athletes from around the U.S., flew to Europe in mid-March for the competition. Earlier, Stone developed a dry-land training program, kept in touch with the athletes and their local coaches to ensure they were practicing and coached the team at the Special Olympics USA training camp held in December 2016 in Killington, Vermont.
With the trip to Austria, Stone had to remain disciplined to stay on top of her legal studies and homework. “Two weeks off is a long time to take away from law school,” she says. “If I was nervous about anything, it was taking that much time away from school.”
Despite the break, Stone improved her grades, ending the spring semester ranked higher than she was in the fall.
The Austrian games were Stone’s third major competition, after the 2015 X Games and 2013 Special Olympics World Winter Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea.
The U.S. delegation of about 150 athletes took on competitors from more than 80 countries in snowboarding, alpine skiing, cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, floor hockey, figure skating and speedskating. Stone’s six athletes contended in alpine events such as the giant slalom and super G, which included racing through gates on a downhill course.
The course in Austria was the most difficult race course Stone had ever seen for a Special Olympics event. Her athletes excelled, though, picking up four golds and one silver medal, in addition to several ribbons for fourth-place finishes and below.
“The mental part of the sport is just as difficult to conquer as the technical aspects, and to compete on a course harder than an athlete has ever raced on before is extremely difficult. When doubts set in, they are hard to shake,” Stone says. “The ability to ignore all of the things that would cause others anxiety, worry and self-doubt, and focus on technique and success is what sets a professional athlete apart from an amateur.”
Daina Shilts, one of Stone’s female athletes, took gold in both the super G and giant slalom. Although she felt some nerves before the competition in Austria, Stone helped calm her down.
“She treats me like an equal, and she knows exactly how to tell us what to do,” Shilts says. “She’s an amazing person inside and out. I think of her as a friend and a coach, but more so a friend because that’s how she treats me.”
Stone was encouraged by the international attention focused on the games. ESPN fully covered the competition, and the team appeared on “Good Morning America” and met several dignitaries from the U.S. State Department, including Vice President Mike Pence’s wife, Karen Pence.
“The treatment of our team as the world-class athletes they are was well-deserved,” Stone says, “and a true sign of the inclusion that Special Olympics has strived to achieve for its athletes since it was founded.”
Stone came back to school with renewed focus and motivation for her studies and final exams. Soon after her return, the Willamette Law Placement Office honored her as the first-year student with the most pro bono hours. First-year students have to complete 10 hours of pro bono or volunteer work to be recognized, but with her hours for the Special Olympics and some for the ACLU of Oregon, Stone completed 254.
With two more years left at Willamette, Stone aims to finish law school as strongly as her athletes finished their events.
“In many ways, I have lived my life by the athlete oath. I think of it often and wear it on a bracelet around my wrist,” she says. “It really taught me not to fear failure, which was one of the biggest obstacles to me pursuing higher education. It showed me that failure is only a lesson to be learned.”
About Willamette University College of Law
Opened in 1883, Willamette University College of Law is the first law school in the Pacific Northwest. The college has a long tradition at the forefront of legal education and is committed to the advancement of knowledge through excellent teaching, scholarship and mentorship. Leading faculty, thriving externship and clinical law programs, ample practical skills courses and a proactive career placement office prepare Willamette law students for today's legal job market. According to statistics compiled by the American Bar Association, Willamette ranks first in the Pacific Northwest for job placement for full-time, long-term, JD-preferred/JD-required jobs for the class of 2014 and first in Oregon for the classes of 2012, 2013, 2014, and 2015. Located across the street from the state capitol complex and the Oregon Supreme Court, the college specializes in law and government, law and business, and dispute resolution.