Anna McDougal is much more than a skier. The 38-year-old is a published author, an artist and a spokesperson for disabilities issues. She's also only one of two Special Olympics athletes from Maine competing in the Special Olympics World Winter Games in Austria March 18-24. Her events are super-G, slalom G and slalom. "I'm just so happy and honored that I'm representing the state of Maine," says McDougal.
Whether going for a training run, lifting the torch at the Special Olympics Maine State Winter Games or working on her latest needlepoint, McDougal always seems to have a smile on her face. "Anna has always had such an electric personality and just a knack for knowing people and doing great things," says Amy Burchstead, McDougal's sister.
Special Olympics transformed McDougal's life, helping her to develop a healthier lifestyle and grow a strong sense of community in the Brunswick area. "She has a tight group of friends and mentors, and she's such a social people person," Burchstead says. "That means everything to her."
Here's a closer look at McDougal's life in the weeks before Austria.
McDougal grew up skiing in New Hampshire. But when she and her family moved to Maine, she didn't ski very much. Not until she met her coach, Connie French Smith. Over the years, the two have developed a close bond. To McDougal, Smith is "the mother of skiing" and inspires her to strive for the best -- and most important, to be herself. McDougal says her coach was the happiest she had ever seen her when it was announced that McDougal was selected to go to Austria.
To McDougal, there's nothing like racing downhill. Quoting one of her favorite songs -- this from Tom Petty -- skiing is like "free fallin'." To prepare for Austria, McDougal skied several challenging mountains, including Sugarloaf Mountain at the Special Olympics Maine State Winter Games in late January. During the opening ceremony, McDougal was honored to light the Flame of Hope in front of more than 600 athletes and coaches. McDougal was even able to meet snowboard legend Seth Wescott at the event. One day she hopes to meet her skiing idol, Lindsey Vonn. "I had a knee issue, and she had the exact same thing I had," McDougal says. "She got up unscathed -- so did I!"
Outside of skiing, McDougal attends Spindleworks, a nonprofit arts center for people with disabilities. There, more than 40 artists work in a variety of media -- including pottery, woodworking, painting and writing. McDougal has designed and created her own dress and stitched together needlepoint, among other projects. McDougal is primarily interested in pottery and fashion (she created a pair of bell-bottom pants). At Spindleworks, the artists sell their work, earning 75 percent of the sale price with the remaining 25 percent helping to purchase supplies for the center.
McDougal has also written "A Look Back," a book that chronicles her life growing up in New Hampshire, her move to Maine, her experience with the Special Olympics, her involvement with Spindleworks and her love of music. In the book, McDougal writes how a gluten-free diet paired with regular exercise helped her lose weight, get into shape and live a much healthier lifestyle. Burchstead says that McDougal walks two and a half miles a day and quit drinking soda. She also says her trip to Austria is a tribute to how hard she's worked. McDougal also attributes this change in lifestyle to her active role in the Special Olympics community. Although downhill skiing is her passion, McDougal participates in bocce ball and softball during the summer months. She plans on writing another book on her experiences leading up to and including her first Special Olympics World Winter Games in Austria.
In the lead-up to Austria, ESPN's Victoria Arlen visited McDougal at the Lost Valley Ski Area in Auburn, Maine, for a TV feature. After the on-camera interviews, McDougal was ready to hit the slopes with Arlen. But first they recited the Special Olympics' oath at the top of the hill: "Let me win. But if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt." An absolute bitter cold day at Lost Valley didn't dampen McDougal's spirit as they raced down the hill multiple times. Once at the bottom of the run, Arlen and McDougal even sang "Free Fallin'."
When a bill was proposed in Maine that could have changed how care was evaluated and handled for those with disabilities, McDougal spoke out. Under the bill, introduced in 2015, the Department of Health and Human Services would no longer have been required to hold public hearings or require lawmakers' approval when making changes to MaineCare reimbursement rates for those with intellectual disabilities and autism. McDougal told the Health and Human Services Committee, "Transparency is vital to ensuring the best outcomes for individuals, their families and our community. Secrecy breeds abuse." The bill never became law.
The support of her family has been key to McDougal's success, growth and preparation for the games, especially in her pursuit of a healthy lifestyle. McDougal lives on an organic farm with her sister, and produce is readily available. McDougal also dedicated her super-G race, in which she won gold on a state level, to her late grandfather. Her grandfather had supported her in her dream of competing on the world stage -- a dream that is coming to fruition in Austria.