Anyone who goes up against Anton Grotz will find they have big shoes to fill – snowshoes, to be exact.
The 22-year-old is among 2,700 athletes competing in the 2017 Special Olympics World Winter Games in Austria this month. Grotz’s “fighting spirit to win” and determination to always keep improving are among the traits his father says he admires in his son, who has learning disabilities but doesn’t let them stop him from what he wants to do.
“Never give up, and always keep fighting,” says the young snowshoer, whose smile is as winning as his talent.
“He’s very keen to achieve,” says his father, for whom Anton is named. “He inspires us, the whole family.” The Grotz family includes Anton’s younger sister and an older brother. Their extended family includes the town of Unterammergau, Germany, population 1,500, where the Grotz family lives, and where everyone knows the athlete and is rooting for him.
Grotz grew up in the family’s 400-year-old house in Unterammergau, a pastoral region of Bavaria where cows and ski resorts share the beauty of the Ammergau Alps. His family owns a dairy farm, and Anton’s skill, dexterity and speed at maneuvering around it every winter on snowshoes was not lost on his father, or on a high school track coach who encouraged Grotz to compete in the sport.
“We all here in the region are proud that we have a sportsman who will go to the World Games in Schladming, Austria,” one of the sites for the World Winter Games, says coach Horst Demmelmayr of Special Olympics Germany. Grotz “wholeheartedly gives his best in everything he does.”
“A tough start to life doesn’t mean that you can’t become a world champion at the things you love.”
Grotz is one of 30 athletes Microsoft is supporting in the March 14-25 event, which features eight winter sports: Alpine skiing, cross country skiing, figure skating, floor hockey, floorball, short track speed skating, snowboarding and Grotz’s passion, snowshoeing. As a Special Olympics partner, Microsoft has provided technology, support and devices to help the organization support the management of 100,000 events in 170 countries each year.
Grotz competed in the World Winter Games in 2013 in South Korea, where he won a silver medal for snowshoeing in his division. He regularly trains on the fields of his family’s farm, which make for excellent competitive terrain in the winter. In the run-up to the Games, he is training five times a week in Schladming, more than three hours from his hometown.
During the summer months, Grotz’s training doesn’t stop just because there isn’t snow on the ground. In the warmer months, it’s soccer time, helping him maintain and build on his strength and endurance. And, as his father notes, “He’s absolutely crazy about soccer.”
His enthusiasm was shared with soccer player Daniele Bruno, 20, when the two recently spent a couple days together training in each other’s sport. On the first day, Bruno, who plays forward for the Spielvereinigung Unterhaching team, coached Grotz in the fineries of soccer in Munich. On the second day, the roles were reversed, with Grotz leading Bruno through intense snowshoe training in Unterammergau.
On day one, after Grotz found the corner of the net with an emphatic shot, Bruno noted that Grotz “is a fighter, just like me,” and told Grotz how he would look forward to learning from him about snowshoeing.
“Yes,” Grotz replied, with a big smile. “It will be tougher than here.”
And it seemed to be. On the Grotz family farm, in the snow, Bruno listened as Grotz showed him the ropes and how to conserve his energy. “He showed me how to save and ration my strength, and not burn everything at once,” Bruno said.
Working on your own, Grotz says, “you are limited. But together, you have much more potential. That’s much better.”
Bruno agrees. “Everybody can learn from each other,” he said after the experience. What did he learn? “A tough start to life doesn’t mean that you can’t become a world champion at the things you love.”
When Grotz isn’t training or working on the family’s farm, he spends his days as a carpenter in a workshop with others who have intellectual disabilities. His specialty is woodworking, which he started learning at age 16, and he is an artisan as he builds a variety of items including chairs, tables and even birdhouses.
“I just help where I can,” he says. “There’s always someone who needs a hand.”
Learn more about Grotz’s journey to the 2017 Special Olympics World Winter Games.
Lead photo: Anton Grotz leads the way as he trains soccer player Daniele Bruno in snowshoeing.