Happy Trails: With the moguls in her life behind her, Special Olympics skier draws inspiration from family, strong Catholic faith

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BRISTOL — Watching their daughter race down the mountain was at times difficult for Bill and Debbie Henrich, despite seeing her battle the odds time and again throughout her life.

The early spring conditions this year in the Austrian Central Alps were unusually balmy for winter sports, leaving the incline known as Slope 32 slushy, not exactly the wintry conditions that Amy Henrich was used to skiing in back home in Rhode Island at Yawgoo Valley or in the mountains of New Hampshire.

But the tenacious Special Olympian wanted to make the most of her participation in the 2017 World Winter Games — her first ever trip outside the United States — competing with the heart and soul she is well-known for back home.

“I couldn’t watch her. I got very emotional. People were falling, they were going outside the course. It was nerve-wracking,” Debbie Henrich said of her daughter Amy, 35.

The young woman sporting ski bib number 368 was rewarded for her perseverance in competing against some of the world’s premier Special Olympics skiers, earning a Gold Medal in the AS Alpine Intermediate Giant Slalom, and also garnering a very respectable fourth place finish in the AS Alpine Intermediate Super G event.

Amy, coached by Carla Sweeney of Tiverton, was the only alpine skier from Rhode Island to qualify and selected to go to the Special Olympics World Games.

“I never traveled outside of the United States,” Amy said. “You get off the plane, they welcome you, get your gear for you. The host town was incredible to us.”

She even got to meet Timothy Perry Shriver, chairman of the Special Olympics, whose mother Eunice Kennedy Shriver founded Camp Shriver, which evolved into the Special Olympics in 1968.

“He’s an incredible man, so nice,” she said.

Following the events Amy and her family would head into the nearby town of Schladming for the Olympics medal ceremony.

The day she took the stage, sporting that gold medal around her neck and projecting a beaming smile, Amy was a hero.

But then, back at home in Bristol, she’s always been a hero to the hundreds of faith formation students whose lives she has touched through her teaching at Our Lady of Mount Carmel Parish, and the countless others she has inspired with her caring and positive attitude.

“Many teachers like to give out gold stars on their students’ papers, but Amy, with her gold medal, is a true hero,” says Rose Malloy, religious education coordinator at OLMC.

“The children really move Amy. She’s just such a wonderful teacher. She’s very gentle with them.”

When their hometown hero was chosen to participate in this year’s Special Olympics in Austria the education program hosted a surprise party for her.

The teachers bought her a medal of St. Bernard, the patron for skiers, hikers and other mountain sport pursuits, and had it blessed by Emeritus Bishop Louis E. Gelineau.

Each class also wrote out a card wishing her good luck and included in each a prayer card.

“She had a different prayer card for her to read each day to give her that spiritual help, being so far away,” Malloy said.

“We’re very proud of her, not just because she represented the United States, but for everything she does here with the children.”

After returning from Austria and settling into her normal routine again Amy brought the medal to her Sunday school classes so her students and former students could see it.

“It’s awesome,” says second-grader Piper Nunes, touching the gold medal, adding that she is proud of her teacher’s accomplishments.

“She’s a really nice teacher,” says third-grader Gabby Danielo.

Amy and her family are longtime active parishioners at Our Lady of Mount Carmel Parish. Bill and Debbie serve as extraordinary ministers of the Eucharist and offer their assistance across several parish ministries, while their son Matthew, 31, now living in California and serving in the U.S. Navy, was an altar server and sacristan for OLMC Pastor Father Henry Zinno.

Father Zinno, who officiated at Matthew’s wedding in La Jolla, California, in January, said that Amy’s dedication to her parish even before she started teaching nine years ago earned her the prestigious Thomas Vendituoli Faith in Action award in 2005-2006.

Amy was the third recipient of the award, given in honor of a former football coach at Mount Hope High School, a man of great faith who passed away unexpectedly, leaving behind a great legacy of promoting his faith both on the field and wherever he went.

“I’m so happy for Amy and for all the success that she has had,” says Father Zinno. “Amy has been helping here in our parish for so long, teaching CCD and she helps in so many ways. It’s great to see such a faith-filled family that has fun together.”

Amy was born in Hawaii, where her father was serving in the Navy as a hospital pharmacist. The family moved to Rhode Island when she was 2 years old.

Born with a developmental disability, Amy recalls her school days as often not very happy ones, as classmates at the time did not understand that she needed to learn in a different way than they did.

“I had a hard time as a child,” she said. “I was having a hard time accepting myself, and people were making fun of me and they were just so mean.”

With both of her parents being avid skiers — Bill grew up in Wisconsin, where he enjoyed skiing recreationally, later meeting Debbie on the slopes in New Hampshire when he was stationed in nearby Portsmouth — Amy took to the slopes as a young child and found she had a remarkable aptitude for the sport.

She would go on to become involved in Special Olympics when she was in the eighth grade, trying out various sports, including track and field.

“We’re all skiers, but when Bill retired, he took on the role of being the person who drove Amy to all our Special Olympics skiing over at Yawgoo, and then he became a volunteer coach helping other Special Olympians,” Debbie said.

“The organization really affords them opportunities to try many things,” Debbie said of Special Olympics, noting that in 1999, Amy competed in the World Games, held that year in the U.S., for track and field.

It is through her participation in Special Olympics that Amy met her boyfriend of the last two years, Chris Lussier, 25, of Warwick. Lussier competed this year at the World Games in Austria as the second Rhode Island representative.

“He liked me for four years and finally got the courage to ask me out,” she jokes of Lussier, who earned a bronze medal in the snowshoe event.

Amy, who lives independently in her own apartment a short distance from her parents in Bristol, says she is very happy in her job at Countryside Day Care in Portsmouth, where she hopes to inspire the youngsters in her care to explore their full potential.

“The kids are just so sweet,” she says. “I just love children. I love it when they come into class and they are so excited.”

Amy feels she is at a good point in her life where she is very comfortable with who she is. She recently competed in swimming events at the Special Olympics State Summer Games at URI, and enjoys the camaraderie she feels with fellow athletes who have the same perspective on life that she does.

“I have friends now that I hang out with. It’s just so much fun to swim together,” she says.