A gold medalist who gave all he could
“When you have a disability, people think you’re limited,” said friend Anne Menconi. “But Billy, with his disadvantage, probably gave more than most people who aren’t disadvantaged. And that’s a lesson we can take from him.”
Switala, 28, died Thursday evening of injuries suffered in a June 5 car crash that also took the life of his longtime counselor, Charlene Thomsen-Rounds of Eagle, who was widely known as “Char.”
But even though his life was short, it was far from empty and he had an enormous impact on everyone who knew him, friends said.
Switala – aside from snowboarding, cycling and playing soccer in the Special Olympics – volunteered with the Snowboard Outreach Society, for Eagle River cleanups, worked as a ticket scanner at Vail Mountain and was known as the house handyman.
“He took great pride in what he did and in doing things well,” said Chad Young, a friend who worked with Switala at SOS. “And he liked to share his successes with other people.”
Switala was flourishing in a program run by Glenwood Springs-based Mountain Valley Developmental Services, friends and those who worked with him said.
The program helps people who have developmental disabilities live more independent lives.
“From where Billy started from five and a half years ago, he’s come a long way,” said case manager Teri Smith. “Billy came such a long way because Char never gave up on him.”
Anne Deyarmond, who also worked with Switala, said he constantly drove himself to be active and successful.
“He pushed himself to reach his full potential,” Deyarmond said.
But as focused as Switala was on his own achievements, he also wanted his friends to succeed, as well.
On May 22, Switala ran across Avon and Vail in the Special Olympics torch run with his soccer and cycling teammates. He asked for more support from the community for himself and his fellow Special Olympians.
“I’m proud of them and I’m also proud of myself,” Switala said. “I’d like the community to get to know us and support us every way they can.”
Friend Larry Vasquez, who has also competed in the World Special Olympic Games, said he often asked Switala for advice.
“Me and Billy are like brothers,” Vasquez said. “Sometimes we fight, but it’s always about something stupid. I’m really happy he was working for Vail Resorts and that he got to go to the Special Olympics.
“We’d pal around, saying we were the two “World Games boys,'” Vasquez said.
Last winter, Switala was a “sherpa” for the Snowboard Outreach Society, which helps at-risk kids get back on track through the adventure and discipline of learning to snowboard.
Each sherpa leads a group of kids through five days of snowboarding on Vail and Beaver Creek mountains, as well as in a series of community service activities.
“It wasn’t easy to detect that he had anything slowing him down because he got involved in so many different things,” said friend Arn Menconi, the founder of SOS and an Eagle County commissioner. “He was very involved and he was a remarkable person.”
His dedication inspired everyone around him, Young said.
“The way he inspired me most is to take pride in and and celebrate successes,” Young said. “So often in my life I go from one problem or task to the next and forget to enjoy overcoming an obstacle. That’s the greatest thing he taught me. That, it’s OK to be proud of yourself.”
Anne Menconi said one of Billy’s last goals was to become a snowboarding coach.
“Billy truly was a phenomenal person,” she said. “He was always striving. He had high goals and aspirations –and they were all positive, community-oriented aspirations.”
Matt Zalaznick can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 606, or via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.