Special Olympics
Alyssa Roenigk, ESPN The Magazine senior writer 239d

Rising from the ashes

SCHLADMING, Austria -- One by one, they selected a medal from the table and placed it around his neck. Then, they hugged him, kissed him and fought back tears. Moments earlier, Julio Contreras, coach of the Costa Rican Special Olympics snowshoeing team, had presented 16-year-old Kenneth Meneses Ramirez with a tray containing replicas of the 12 Special Olympics medals he had won at national competitions and lost in a fire that burned his family's home to the ground.

After an emotional embrace between coach and athlete -- and an on-camera interview with ESPN anchors Kevin Negandhi, Lindsay Czarniak and Alfredo Lomeli -- Ramirez's teammates joined him on set. They lined up behind him and patiently waited for their turn to take part in the surprise.

"I'm so grateful to Special Olympics and Special Olympics Costa Rica for providing me with the motivation to keep going as long as I have," Ramirez said through a translator during the taping of the segment, which aired Thursday night. He added that he was crying tears of joy and his experience here had been so incredible; the support he felt was so vast, he didn't want to leave.

Ramirez, a high school student in the rural area of Tucurrique, Costa Rica, was often bullied as a child because of his intellectual disabilities. But after joining Special Olympics in 2013, his confidence improved, he lost weight and began winning medals, 12 of them in the sports of athletics and bocce.

Then, one afternoon in 2015, he returned home after a bike ride with his friends and saw smoke coming from his home. After learning his two brothers were out of the house and safe, having been rescued by a local butcher, Ramirez grabbed a shovel and began searching the ash for his medals. "I didn't find them," he said. "That's when the pain of losing my medals kicked in."

He didn't focus on what he had lost for long. That day, Ramirez made a decision to replace the medals he lost by winning new ones and recommitted himself to his training.

When a teacher told him about the World Winter Games, Ramirez began dreaming of competing in Austria for Costa Rica's snowshoeing team, which trains on sand. He had never been out of the country, never been on a plane, never seen snow, but he knew his legs could carry him there. Once he made the World Games team, Ramirez upped his training runs to 25 minutes per day and visualized what it would be like to run through the snow and add a World Winter Games medal to his new and growing collection.

"I took upon the challenge of coming to these Games in Austria after an incredibly difficult time," Ramirez said. "I want to experience this forever."

In the months leading up to the Games, Contreras and officials from Special Olympics International and Special Olympics Costa Rica had a secret plan brewing. They began compiling the list of medals Ramirez had won before the fire and ordered copies to be made. They somehow kept that secret until Wednesday, when Contreras presented the medals to Ramirez during the taping.

"You don't need to win another medal in your life," Contreras said in Spanish, hugging Ramirez, who was overcome with emotion. "From now on, you're a champion."

On Thursday morning, Ramirez and his teammates surprised their coach, as well. With Ramirez running the third leg, Team Costa Rica won gold in the 4x100-meter relay. It was Ramirez's first medal of the Winter Games.

Let's call it lucky 13.

^ Back to Top ^