This weekend, the flame was lit and the games began, again. March 12th rekindled Vancouver, as almost 300 torchbearers ushered in the glow of the 2010 Paralympics Games, March 13-21. And just over a week ago, Challenge Aspen hosted nearly 120 competitors from 20 countries on the slopes of Buttermilk, for the last stop on the IPC Alpine World Cup Circuit.
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“How’s the course?” asks Mudflap, lift operator extraordinaire and congenial mountain host, cooking up brats and award-winning chili at the base of Tiehack during the week’s unseasonably warm race days.
“Are you kidding? Living the dream,” says Challenge Aspen Competition Team Coach John McBride. “It’s a little soft today for ski racing, but for watching a ski race in the blazing sun? Perfect!”
Challenge Aspen has several adaptive ski programs, including CAMO, geared towards newly-injured Vets and the Competition Program, focused on grooming athletes for the World Cup and possible Paralympic performance.
“The public knows very little about the Adaptive Ski scene,” continues McBride, a Roaring Fork Valley native, accomplished racer and former U.S. Ski Team coach. He’s back this season to coach the Challenge Aspen Comp Team, grooming competitors like Laurie Stephens, Heath Calhoun and Joe Tompkins for World Cup and Paralympic glory.
“These racers are already ‘red-headed step children’, simply because of their disability. But the morale on the team, and the circuit, is huge; they kid each other, make fun of it all and for a lot of them, getting out here at this level is about getting back to an active lifestyle. This is what helps them get there.”
One chair ahead of us, Alana Nichols turns around and waves. “She got a medal in basketball in Beijing,” says McBride. “She’s gonna get some hardware at the Games, for sure!”
Back at the base, Paul Speight stops to chat awhile before heading back up the hill. A New Zealand native, Speight has been skiing most of his life, pre and post injury; he now lives in Denver and supplies adaptive ski programs like Challenge Aspen with their equipment.
He’s a character, with stories of the good old days: “Way back when, ski poles used to be hollow in the middle; you’d unscrew the cap, pour your rum, or whiskey in the top and away you’d go! Look down the hill, Dave; finish your turns! Look down the hill,” Speight calls to Dave Wolf, who’s challenging himself on a steeper section of the hill.
Wolf negotiates the turns, in spite of his anxiety. “I know I can do it, but it still brings up anxiety from my fall,” shares Wolf, who was stationed in Germany from 1980-83. He was injured on a rest day after falling off a five-story building.
There was a time, after the accident, when Wolf weighed 300 pounds. Since then, he’s quit drinking, cold turkey, trimmed down to average and transformed himself into a dedicated athlete. Last summer, he did the Ride for the Rockies and during the winters, he skis Eldora, Winter Park and here in Aspen with the Challenge Aspen CAMO program.
On hearing there’s a reporter covering the event, Paul Speight turns to me and asks, now in a serious tone of voice: “How powerful is your pen? “
Thousands of reporters are on-site for the Olympic Games yet, according to Speight, “maybe one in 100 people have ever heard of the Paralympics, or adaptive skiing. People say that athletes are role models, and there’s always the big hype about snowboarders and the young kids who look up to them. We want to say that kids with disabilities can also have role models. They can sit on a podium and have their countries’ flags waved, exactly the same way. We need that recognition!” he says, passionately.
“I call this a lifestyle, not a disability,” Speight continues. “We all have a different way of living, a different challenge. Every single one of us. Any one of those racers in the Olympics could have had a fall, and become one of our life-stylists,” he observes.
Such was the case with Reini Sampl, member of the Austrian Adaptive Ski Team. In ‘96, Sampl was a professional skier and member of the Austrian “abled” Ski Team. Following a bad fall in the Super G, Sampl lost the use of his legs.
Initially, he lost the desire to ski race as well. “I wasn’t interested in disabled sport; I thought it was bullshit,” says the candid Sampl, basking in the afternoon sun with an après-race Budweiser. “But a buddy came in during a rehab session and showed me videos of mono-skiing…once I reached that point of acceptance, about my injury, I became open to the idea of getting back on skis. And soon I was skiing all the time!”
Year-round training involves a mix of hand-bike, fitness and swimming, while winters involve seven days a week, skiing and traveling to World Cup races around the globe. During summers, the team heads to either Chile, Argentina or New Zealand for three weeks, then heads back to start winter training regimens in Austria, every October and November.
“As athletes, we usually have 2-3 months in the summer, for holidays,” says Sampl. I mention the underwhelming American holiday schedule; perhaps I’m living in the wrong country? “No problem,” says Sampl, matter-of-factly. “Come to us!”
He’s heading to the Paralympics, looking forward to the camaraderie of his international competitors. “We’re all a big family in the Adaptive World Cup. I have friends from a lot of nations. But the USA and Canada scene is so great; you have more programs for disabled guys. There’s more integration here, more than in Austria. And the course in Canada is exciting! It’s the same course as the Olympic Women skied and for me, it’s good; I like strong and steep. And fast. For me, it’s better.”
Sampl is a Red Bull sponsored athlete, representing Atomic, Audi and a host of other companies. For the majority of adaptive athletes, sponsorship opportunities are elusive and few and far between. There’s much less awareness of adaptive skiing and, relatedly, much less funding.
“Disabled ski racership isn’t such a big deal to the public,” explains USAST (U.S. Adaptive Ski Team) member Heath Calhoun. “Sponsorships are definitely competitive and you need to hustle, whatever you can get a hold of: entry fees, helmets, goggles, pants – you name it.”
Calhoun hails from Bristol, Tennessee, joining the army in 1999. He was injured in Iraq in 2003, becoming a bilateral, above the knee amputee. “I’d like to think that most people in the military are fairly athletic,” says Calhoun, “so for me, I wanted to find a way to get active as soon as possible. But it was a whole new world for me, the disabled athletic world. It just somehow enters your life, but until it does, you don’t know anything about it; it’s not a part of your world.”
While at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, he heard about ski/snowboarding programs for the newly injured. At first, he resisted: “I was already in a wheelchair; I didn’t want to be in a sit-ski.” Eventually, he found his way to Challenge Aspen’s DAV Winter Sports Clinic, in 2004. Says Calhoun:” I fell in love with the freedom that is skiing.”
While mainstream media doesn’t give the sport much attention, there’s definitely a growing momentum. “It’s pretty neat to see the sport in the X Games. People have responded really well. And I’m glad people are coming out to see the Adaptive World Cup, the best in the world in disabled skiing!”
His teammate, Laurie Stephens, has much hardware to her credit. An American record-holder in disabled swimming, Stephens started skiing at the age of five. She was 2009’s IPC World Cup Downhill and Giant Slalom champ, with nine podium finishes in the 2008-2009 season.
Stephens was born with Spina Bifida, a birth defect affecting spine development and as such, she’s never known any different. “I have a hard time defining a challenge compared to what others might think. What others perceive as challenges, to me they’re just the way things are; I may have to adapt and modify accordingly, that’s all. Being disabled, you just have to use what you got that works, and make it as strong as possible.”
During her career, she’s traveled all over the world with the Adaptive World Cup and the USAST. “It’s great being able to represent your country at a major event like the Paralympics and hear the National Anthem played when you win; it’s a great experience, hard to describe. I’ve been lucky enough to find a full-time sponsor so I’ve been able to train full-time with the Challenge Aspen Competition Team. I’ve gotten some great coaching and gate-training here,” she says, appreciatively.
Stephens also holds a degree in therapeutic recreation, with an aim towards getting others with disabilities involved in the sport. “It’s important to realize that we’re just like any other athlete: we train hard and we race to ski our best, and win. I just love skiing,” she continues. “It’s given me the opportunity to experience some amazing things, and I would like to able to share that with others.”