Athletes around the world dream of competing for their country in international competition, especially the Olympics. Meghan Gartzke, a graduate of Hastings High School and Hastings resident, fulfilled that dream a month ago when she competed in the 2017 Special Olympics World Winter Games for Team USA in Austria as part of the alpine ski team.

Gartzke was one of just two Minnesotans to be part of Team USA, which had 132 athletes from around the United States, along with Camilo Mejia of Mahtomedi.

The World Winter games took place March 14-25 in the cities of Graz, Schladming, Ramsau and Styria in Austria. Gartzke, 23, met up with other Team USA members in Washington, D.C., before moving on to Austria, where they stayed with the teams from Canada, Germany and Austria.

Gartzke competed in the slalom and giant slalom events, which combine the times of two runs for each. In the intermediate giant slalom, she took second in her division with a time of just over two minutes 47 seconds (2:47.38). For the intermediate slalom she took fourth in her division with a time of 1:34.77. She said that during her giant slalom run, she knew right away that it had been a good run.

"I was excited and really proud of myself," Gartzke said. "I felt good about my run and when I saw on the scoreboard where I ended up, I knew I did well."

Gartzke's passion for alpine skiing started with her family (father Chuck, mother Katie and younger siblings Jake and Paige) and was nurtured by the Hastings Sharks, Hastings' local Special Olympics team.

"I do several different sports but pretty much my whole family skis and I like skiing," Gartzke said. "It is fun, exciting and I can do it with my family and friends."

She started with Hastings Sharks when she was 8, and in the last 15 years has participated in swimming, track and field, bowling, golf, horseback riding and gymnastics.

In order to qualify for the Special Olympics in Austria, Gartzke had to win a state qualifying meet and complete an application process.

Chuck Gartzke said that he and Paige became certified as coaches in order to help Meghan, since alpine skiing takes quite a bit of individual coaching. In the year leading up to Austria, Meghan said that they trained much more than she had in the past with the help of HHS alpine skiing coach Jim Peine.

Leading up to the World Winter Games, Gartzke said she was excited for just about everything.

"I'm excited to be a part of Team USA, going to a new country, learning the culture and getting to know new people from around the world," she explained. "And meeting Team USA, getting to make new friends on the team and skiing!"

She also said she wanted to prove something when she was in Austria: "That I am brave, strong and capable."

Once there, most of Gartzke's time was occupied by skiing, whether it was practicing, time trials or the actual competition. However, the team did have some downtime in which to enjoy themselves.

"I liked sightseeing in the town and meeting new friends," she said. "I got to meet people from different countries."

The Gartzkes returned home near the end of March and Meghan has settled back into her old routine. She is a dietary aide at Regina Medical Hospital and stays busy with her hobbies, including getting together with her friends, going bowling and skiing with her brother, sister and dad.

Gartzke also said she will stay involved with the Hastings Sharks and Special Olympics, but did have a message for those who wish to someday compete in the World Winter Games: "Work hard in the sport that you are doing and just keep improving. Have fun and you will do great."

Gartzke said that her greatest role model is her brother, Jake Gartzke, who is a freshman at the University of Minnesota-Duluth this year. Her sports hero is an alpine skier just like her.

"Mikaela Shiffrin, because she is a great alpine skier and has won a lot of world cup races and has gone to the winter Olympics for skiing," Meghan said.

Meghan finished by saying she hopes to continue to add trophies to her collection.

The Special Olympics were founded in 1968 and today promotes 32 Olympic disciplines worldwide. They are in 170 countries and support 4.2 million athletes across the globe.