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Why do some Special Olympics niche sports struggle?

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Fire and ice (1:03)

Texan Ian Rawn, a Special Olympics figure skater, is living out his dreams and goals as a part of the U.S. team headed to Austria. (1:03)

When Ian Rawn was a little boy, someone told his mother, Cinde, he might never ride a bike. They said he lacked the balance and coordination it required.

Today, as he glides and spins across the rink, the niche sports of the Special Olympics World Winter Games serve as the backdrop for something even bigger than Ian's singular accomplishment.

From figure skating and speedskating to snowboarding and snowshoeing, just nine sports -- often highly specialized, physically demanding and financially draining -- will be on display in Austria from March 18-24. In contrast, there were 26 sports at the 2015 World Games in Los Angeles.

"You have so many obstacles involved," said U.S. World Winter Games figure skating coach Tappie Dellinger. "As a skier and snowboarder, it's finding slopes when you're not in winter states. Skaters don't have rinks available. You have to have the availability and the right equipment -- and then some talent to go along with it."

Just 21 states have Special Olympics figure skating programs, while 20 states have snowboarding and 22 have speedskating. Snowshoeing has the most, with 30 participant states.

Ian, who is 34 years old and was born with Down syndrome, started figure skating in his early 20s, and he can pinpoint exactly when he fell in the love with the sport. He was watching Tara Lipinski in the 1998 Olympic Games, where she won gold in Nagano.

"I actually watched how she did her programs, and I thought to myself, 'You know what? I want to be that type of athlete,'" said Ian. "My family was there with me watching it, and I told them, so they knew that for a long time."

When the Rawns moved from Pennsylvania to their current home in Plano, Texas, in 2003, they were able to find a coach and a rink close to where they lived.

Today, there are just seven Special Olympics figure skaters in the Dallas area, and Ian is the only athlete from Texas who will represent the U.S. in Austria.

"[My sport] is very hard because of a lot of reasons," he said. "One is our physical [abilities] are not really good all the time because people who have special needs can have all kinds of health problems, so there's that. And they have the same reasons as other people about ice time, coaching and equipment."

Ian's skates alone cost between $650 and $700, Cinde said. And while his group lessons are free, he takes three private lessons a week at $40 each. There are also periodic charges for ice time, though relatively minimal at less than $10 per hour.

For their family, Cinde said, it has been worth the cost so her son can enjoy the numerous benefits of a sport most people can't master at the most fundamental level.

"Ian has been in a lot of team sports and he loves them, but with this individual sport, he can focus everything he's got, doing his best to achieve his goals," she said. "Skating touches an important part of his personality. That first time seeing Tara Lipinski, there was something in him that wanted to perform that way."

Creatively, skating also engages Ian in a unique way, she said. "He loves music, and you can see when he's on the ice, he always chooses music with emotional power in it," she said. "It's the way he's wired."

While Ian says the most difficult aspect of skating is "learning all different kinds of moves and maneuvers at each level," Cinde said the physical, creative and intellectual demands of his routines help build him up as a whole person.

"I don't ever remember him struggling to learn a routine," she said. "I think that sense of accomplishment when you do it yourself is different [than in team sports]. He just has a sense of confidence about himself and who he is through skating."

To teach those routines and instill that self-esteem, Special Olympics coaches must be trained and certified and often be willing to work on a volunteer basis, while ice rinks operators need to be cognizant of their own bottom lines.

There are 998 Special Olympics participants in the 21 states that offer figure skating -- Ohio leads the way with 268. Ohio alone has more participants than 19 of the 26 other nations that will compete in the sport in the World Winter Games. But Dellinger -- who is based in the Raleigh, North Carolina, area -- said the U.S. totals are going down.

"The numbers fluctuate quite a bit in each region," she said. "We used to have a wonderful program in Atlanta 20 years ago -- and now it's completely gone. We used to have skaters in South Carolina, and now there are none. I don't know the reason. A lot of coaches don't have time, or if they're willing to give time, they have to make money to pay their bills."

Dellinger said she charges Special Olympics athletes a small percentage of her normal fees, and if they can't afford it, she donates her time. While her rink, Extreme Ice Center in Indian Trail, North Carolina, offers ice time at a nominal fee or waives it entirely, most don't, she said.

"I understand both sides of the coin when you can touch 75 bowlers with the same funding it requires for three figure skaters," she said. "But in my heart, I'm willing to do it for those three skaters."

Ice skating isn't the only niche sport that is facing dwindling numbers. Snowboarding, snowshoeing and speedskating are also struggling to attract participants -- and to stay afloat. Overall in the U.S., 20 states offer Special Olympics snowboarding programs to 412 athletes. (Compare that to 41 states that offer skiing to 6,930 athletes.) Snowboarding contends with the high prices of equipment and lift tickets, which can cost more than $100, and the limitations of access to the slopes. Snowshoeing, in contrast, is a low-cost, accessible sport, but there is a lack of awareness.

The sport that can be closest compared to ice skating and its hurdles is speedskating.

"Being a niche sport does make it harder," said Ken Hart, Indiana's U.S. World Winter Games speedskating coach. "But the biggest difficulty is resources -- finding an ice rink. California, for example, has to decide where they allocate their money, and skiing and ice skating may not be as important because there are more summer venues."

Hart said Indiana lost its Special Olympics speedskating program a year and a half ago when the rink that had been donating time went out of business. And the Illinois Special Olympics recently said it would no longer offer figure skating or speedskating after this year, citing a lack of participation.

But athletes such as Ian are keeping the life in these struggling programs. About 210 U.S. athletes will compete in Austria -- and more than 2,700 from 107 nations.

"One of my biggest dreams and goals is to compete at the World Games," Ian said. "And to be the lone Texan to represent the country ... is totally amazing."