This time of year is the one Beau Karlen and Camilo Mejia love most. Best friends for well over two decades, the pair share a contagious energy, love for life and penchant for winter sports of the high-speed, downhill variety. They’re like celebrities in their hometown of Mahtomedi, and they’ve taken the international winter sport community by storm.
Camilo, 27, is an alpine skier who competed in the Special Olympics World Games in Austria last March—coming away with second- and sixth-place finishes. Snowboarder Beau, 28, competed at the Games in Idaho in 2009—placing fourth in the giant slalom after a fall in his second run.
“I thought, ‘I know I can do better than that!’” Beau says. So he kept training, competing in the first-ever X Games Unified Giant Slalom race in 2015.
Though Beau and Camilo both have Down syndrome, it’s clear their outlook on athletics—and life in general—is not “how?” but “why not?” That seed was planted early by solid role models and parents who would stop at nothing to give their sons the same opportunities other kids had. In 1991, when the World Games were hosted in Minnesota, parents Ralph and Jody Karlen were there with 2-year-old Beau.
“Who knows what our child is going to do,” Jody says, remembering when she watched talented and driven young adults just like her son careening down hills and winning medals. The next year, Beau was standing up on a sled.
Their friendship began with a chance encounter at Festival Foods when—with Beau and Camilo in different school districts—the families immediately connected over a shared diagnosis. Soon the parents were supporting each other, and the new friends couldn’t get enough of each other or their shared downhill hobbies. By middle school, the two were signed up for a trip to Trollhagen with Mahtomedi Middle School’s wildly popular ski club led by veteran coach Paul Beggin, who has been an advocate and huge fan of the men’s careers ever since.
“What these guys do, kids with Down syndrome don’t typically do,” says Ralph. Because of the progressive physical challenges that tend to come with the diagnosis, Beau and Camilo’s ability to compete at the level they do—for as long as they have—has been remarkable. “But we live in a really open community. There are countless people here who are willing to give them a chance,” Ralph says. From playing multiple sports all through high school to competing at the international level, Beau and Camilo take their differences in stride and use athletics as a way to challenge themselves and one another to defy the odds, be better and grow stronger.
“Sports are a lot of fun. You go out there and pretty much just do it,” says Beau. The families even take frequent ski trips to Montana, where the guys take on larger hills than they can in Minnesota. One year, Beau broke his leg and Camilo suffered a torn ACL. “But I came back strong,” says Beau, not fazed by the hiccup. “We both did.”
The two have taken their talents and supportive friendship and run with them, becoming a source of inspiration and encouragement to the tight-knit community of families of kids with Down syndrome. “When parents first have these little tykes, it’s impossible to know what the future will hold,” says Patricia Schaber, Camilo’s mom. “But seeing these kids interact, knowing their kids can have a friendship like this? It opens up their dreams.”
To qualify to represent the U.S. at the Special Olympics World Games—which happen one year after the Olympic Games—the men first had to complete local time trials and earn gold at the state level. Once on Team USA, they worked with personal trainers and coaches at a training camp focused on one-on-one workouts and development. There’s life skill training involved, too. Athletes learn to manage their time, keep commitments and take care of themselves. Then there are the Games, broadcast on ESPN, with thousands of fans lining the hills. For the Austria World Games, schools were closed so the locals could attend, recalls Ralph. “The entire town was there,” he says.
“Yeah, you can’t really describe that experience, seeing your son at the top of the hill in that amazing suit with his name on the board. And then seeing him cross the finish line; there’s nothing else like that,” says Patricia. “I was a nervous wreck, but I don’t think Camilo was one bit nervous, to be honest. His runs were absolutely on—to the second, every single run. He was on cloud nine.”
Beau has a job at Fury Motors and Camilo works at Donatelli’s Pizza. The two encourage each other to stay active and eat healthy, even off the hill and the off-season. Camilo golfs and is an Eagle Scout. Beau plays flag football.
“I do PowerPoints and inspire other students,” explains Camilo, who’s also an ambassador for Special Olympics. He’s in his sweet spot when he’s dressed up and carrying a briefcase. “It’s just fun telling people about what I do,” he says. And when the two aren’t making promotional visits and inspiring younger students, they’re meeting friends for movies or dinner and beers at the Bierstube. But come winter, Sundays are reserved for Afton Alps, where they’re regulars from open to close.
Is there anything these guys don’t do? Ralph chuckles and says, “Yeah, dishes.”