Special Olympics
Alyssa Roenigk, ESPN The Magazine senior writer 266d

'He wears his heart on both sleeves, and on top of his hat.'

SCHLADMING, AUSTRIA -- As James Millard secures the buckles on his faded black ski boots, he closes his eyes and pictures her face.

"I know you're here," he whispers. "I promised you I'd do it, and I'm going to do my best. Now, let's race."

Millard, an alpine skier from Great Britain competing at the Special Olympics World Winter Games in Austria (March 18-24), was 23 when his mother, Jacqueline, died of breast cancer in 2012. He tried to prepare himself for life without the woman he loved to laugh with. The woman who inspired his love for cooking and gardening, who introduced him to skiing at 17, who understood him. The one person in the world he felt he could talk to about anything.

"James has plans and strategies for dealing with almost everything in his life," says Liam de Vanney, head alpine coach for Special Olympics Great Britain. "He talks through everything, shares every thought and emotion. He wears his heart on both sleeves and on top of his hat."

This time, though, Millard was unprepared for how he would feel without his mom. He and his father, David, carried on without her in their Wolverhampton home, but Millard dealt with depression in the months after her death. Then he remembered a promise he made to her shortly before she died. That same year -- January 2013 -- had been a selection year for the SOWWG in Pyeongchang, South Korea. Although he'd been skiing for only a few years, he took gold and silver medals at nationals and believed he would be selected to the team. When he wasn't, he was devastated.

"We told him to keep going, that his day would come," says Candy Wragg, the former head of delegation for Special Olympics Great Britain and a coach for Millard's local ski program. So he picked his chin up and made a promise to his mother that he wouldn't be discouraged, that he would continue to train and do his best to make the team four years later. He would do it for her -- because of how much she had done for him.

"My mom was brilliant," Millard says. "She got me into skiing to help my right leg. My hip rotated in too far and my right foot used to turn in a lot. She thought skiing would help me get my mobility better."

Despite the fact that she herself had never skied, Mom was right. Along with physical therapy, skiing helped to correct the imbalance in Millard's hips. It also gave him a new level of confidence and revealed his love for speed. 

"I have no fear when it comes to speed," Millard says. "Going fast is what I do."

Speed was something he developed after he joined the local Special Olympics team, another suggestion from his mom. Millard, who has a learning disability, thrived in the program.

Skiing also helped Millard feel closer to his mother after her death -- as did time spent in the kitchen. He enrolled in cooking courses at his local adult learning center to learn how to shop for healthy ingredients and make meals from scratch.

But on the days at Acker's Adventure, his local ski center, with a 300-foot-long synthetic hill, he strapped into those faded black boots with the red and silver buckles, clicked into his skis and felt his mother by his side.

He did so as often as he could, committing himself to training and a healthier lifestyle. In May 2016, when Great Britain announced the names of the 11 alpine skiers who would go to the 2017 World Games, Millard's name was on the list.

"I couldn't believe it," Millard says. "I trained so hard to get to this. When we got our uniforms, it felt like Christmas. I had to pinch myself to see if I was dreaming. I did it four or five times just to get in my head that I was going."

But making the team wasn't enough. Millard decided that while he'd fulfilled his promise to his mom, he wasn't satisfied. So he moved the finish a little further away.

"I don't count the promise done until I walk in the closing ceremony," he says, before changing his mind. "No. I'm not finished until I get on that plane to go home."

With each sentence, he turns another finish line into a starting point, raises the stakes and extends his commitment to his mom.

"My mom gave me the drive to not give up on anything," he says. "And she was smiling nonstop. My mates say they see her personality in me."

After he and his teammates arrived in Austria, Millard shared a special moment with them, knowing they, too, had helped him to achieve his dream. The team spent two days in the host town of Gemeinde Bad Kleinkirchheim acclimating to the country before traveling to Schladming. On the final morning of their visit, the team's host took them on a walk through the village that culminated at a church on the top of a hill.

"It was a beautiful morning, clear blue skies," says Adrienne Purdie, assistant head of delegation for Great Britain. "It wasn't planned, but it turned into a wonderful moment."

Inside the church, Millard asked Purdie if he could light a candle for his mother. Then his team gathered around him as he gingerly lit his candle with the flame of another, closed his eyes and said a prayer.

"That was something I will never forget," Millard says. "It was like I had more of a connection to my mom, and also to my team."

Sunday afternoon, surrounded again by his teammates, he clicks into his skis and carries his mother with him to the top of the Super-G course, where he races for the first time as a World Games athlete. As he crosses the finish line, he lets out a joyous scream.

"I can't put how I'm feeling into words," he says. Another finish line crossed, another start line beckoning him its way.

After the race, Millard meets his coaches at the finish. After hugs and high-fives, he clicks out of his skis. When he mentions the scuffs on his faded black boots, someone asks if it is time for a new pair.

"I'll never get new ones," he says. "My mom gave me these boots."

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