A winner springs from a rough start

MIDDLEBURY — Some know him from the ski slopes, some know him from the pool, I met him at the ACTR bus stop downtown. Dressed in worn jeans, a brown jacket and a black ski mask pulled up over his entire face, Herb Gingrich was the typical Vermont skier, or so I thought.
Little did I know that beneath that ski mask was no common man; underneath those layers was a resilient hero.
If you don’t know Herb Gingrich, you should. He’s one of those people that can turn your day around in an instant. Whether it is his toothless smile, his energy, or his loyalty and dedication to his work. Gingrich exudes goodness; and once you hear his story, you’ll understand why.
Herb Gingrich comes from a tough life, and he’ll be the first to admit it. Born in Pennsylvania, he was moved to a group home in Rutland, Vt., when he was a young child. At age 13, Gingrich knew he had to find a way to stay out of trouble and so began to participate in sports.
As if growing up in a group home wasn’t hard enough, Gingrich was also born with an intellectual disability.
“By looking at me, walking down the street, no one could tell I have this problem,” he said. “But I do have some areas I struggle with.”
When Gingrich was in high school, he was cut from the basketball team. This, however, didn’t stop him from doing what he loved. Gingrich immediately signed up for the local Special Olympics basketball team and a month later, he was back on that same court, this time, playing and winning.
Sports quickly became Gingrich’s savior.
“The Special Olympics was something I wanted to do to prevent me from getting in cop cars,” Gingrich said.
He doesn’t only play sports to stay out of trouble, however, Gingrich does it because he enjoys being active and using his body in different ways.
“I have a lot of pent up energy and this is a good way for me to release some of that extra energy,” he said.
Now, at age 35, Gingrich continues his passion for sports with the Special Olympics. Last year, Gingrich went to Lincoln, Neb., to represent Vermont in the 2010 USA Special Olympic Nationals. He walked away with two gold medals in aquatics, one in the 50-meter freestyle and another in the 25-meter backstroke.
“I used to be afraid of water,” Gingrich admits. “Coach just told me if you can get from one end of the pool to the other as quick as you can, you can be done with swimming … And so, I’m a sprinter.”
Herb Gingrich has come a long way from getting cut from the high school basketball team.
Yet, winning two gold medals hasn’t even been Gingrich’s biggest victory. His real accomplishment was battling Stage 4 cancer, and winning those two gold medals while on chemotherapy.
Medals are just accolades to Gingrich; what he really wanted was a family. Herb lived for 32 years without having anyone to call mom or dad. When he was diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer, he wanted “a happy feeling before cancer kicked me in the groin.”
Just before he competed in the nationals last year, his wish came true. Because of Gingrich’s age, he couldn’t be legally adopted, but the couple with whom he lives and who are essentially his parents agreed to call him their son. And to Herb, “that was the greatest thing in the world … It was like I had God sitting on my shoulders.”
Gingrich will be competing in the Special Olympics Vermont Winter Games on March 11-13, this time, in downhill skiing.
“Throw me up on a black diamond and I’ll come down,” he says.
Gingrich has been training all winter for this competition, which will take place at the Suicide Six ski area in Woodstock. Swimming isn’t even Gingrich’s favorite sport, so who knows what he’ll be able to walk away with in the downhill skiing competition. For Herb Gingrich, though, it’s not about winning, it’s about playing the game.
“You can’t always win them all,” he said. “If I win, that’s great and if I don’t, that’s OK, too.”
Gingrich finds a special sense of fulfillment when he competes in the Special Olympics.
“We’re not getting millions of dollars,” he said. “We’re showing professional athletes that after five or six years of playing, we’re not done. We can keep playing.”
As one of the Vermont team’s most seasoned and knowledgeable athletes, Gingrich sets the tone for not only competing well, but also, for having a good time.
“It’s not about winning gold, it’s about getting out there and playing and having fun and if you can’t win, be brave in the attempt. Give it everything you’ve got.”
Editors’ note: Madison Kahn is an intern at the Addison Independent.

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