ANCHORAGE (AP) -- As a racing medium, snow may be overrated.
Just ask the Egyptian Snowshoe Team at the 2001 Special Olympics World Winter Games.
Mohamed Soliman, Hatem Abdel Latif, Iman Mahmoud and Hanan Abdel Hameed had to visit an ice arena to get their first look at ice before they left Cairo. Snow was something that only appeared in pictures.
That hasn't stopped them from piling up medals. The team trained on sand to get ready for the world winter games and so far has won one gold and three silvers.
''They trained for three months, but they had a two-week closed camp,'' said assistant coach Amal Abu El-Futuh said. ''They don't go home during that period. They don't get to see their family. They just train, train, train, train -- and eat and sleep.''
More than 2,400 athletes and coaches from 69 countries are taking part in the games, which showcase the abilities of people with mental retardation.
Snowshoe racing is making its debut as a medal sport. It was introduced as a demonstration sport by host Canada in 1997 at the last Special Olympics world winter games, held in Toronto.
Special Olympics officials discovered that states such as Maine and Michigan had incorporated snowshoeing into their sports programs.
Officials in Hong Kong and Egypt embraced adding the sport, figuring it was easier to train athletes with snowshoes on sand than to make them proficient at skiing or skating.
Athletes from southern states head to their beaches to train, and like the Egyptians, are finding success.
''Some of these other people may want to train on sand,'' said Rick Spring, a Mississippi coach from Ocean Springs, after watching three team members win gold medals.
The snowshoes are a far cry from the webbed footwear designed to keep backcountry hikers from sinking in soft snow. Racing snowshoes are less than 3 feet long, narrow, and made of lightweight metal. The snow on the 400-meter track was no more than 2 inches deep.
Team Canada uses an old-fashion teardrop design made of wood that requires cloth straps to attach the boot to the snowshoe.
''For the athletes, they're more comfortable, and they allow for more running styles,'' said coach Doug Caston of Winnipeg
Metal snowshoes have cleats. Wooden snowshoes don't, and runners can shuffle their feet without tripping, Caston said.
Still, running with snowshoes is like running with big, stiff pancakes on the bottom of your feet and the sport presents challenges for the athletes -- not the least of which is trying to use a port-a-potty without removing the footwear before a big race.
The biggest challenge for Sara Muehlberg of Juneau?
''Putting them on,'' she said.
Melissa Glen of Quebec said tripping is a problem. Teammate Jessica Nickerson considers tripping a plus.
''The fun part is falling,'' Nickerson said. ''Afterward you get up and just fly.''
Speaking through an interpreter four days into their Alaska adventure, the Egyptians said they prefer running on sand. The trouble with snow is, it comes with cold weather.
''It's hard on the knees,'' Abdel Latif said.
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