The Winter Olympics have just gotten underway in Vancouver. I always enjoy watching the Olympics, but I'm looking ahead to the Paralympics that follow next month. I'm intrigued by how few people take on the challenge of nordic skiing on the US Paralympic Ski team. There are 7 members featured on Team USA's website, compared to 23 on the US Alpine Ski team. Let's face it, you've got to be physically tough to sustain the extreme stamina required to compete in nordic skiing. Six of these seven members are sitskiers.
Nordic skiing competition was added to the Paralympics in 1976. The races vary from 2.5 to 20 kilometers depending on gender and disability. The competition is open to men and women with specific disabilities: limb loss/amputee, blindness/visual impairment, spinal cord injury, cerebral palsy, brain injury, and stroke. People with visual impairments compete separately from physically disabled skiers who fall into two categories, standing and seated.
All of the sitskiers are from out west, so I can't pick favorite from New England for this sport. Monica Bascio, is my personal choice as the only woman sitskier. She competed in Torino in 2006 and had 3 top ten finishes. A world champion handcyclist, Monica switched to nordic skiing, then took time off after skiing in Torino to become a mother. She managed to fit in training for 2010 in addition to working as an Occupational Therapist. Sounds like a super-hero among super-heros to me!
This will also be the second Winter Paralympics for Greg Mallory and Chris Klebl. Chris, disabled in a snowboarding accident, had 2 top 20 finishes in Torino and placed 4th overall in the 2008 World Cup circuit. Greg (pictured here) intrigues me because he is a lawyer who alternates between handcycling, paddling and roller-skiing to work each day in Portland, Oregon. Greg was paralyzed after a skiing accident and had 3 top 25 finishes in Torino. He placed 18th in overall standings at the World Cup.
Bob Balk is the most seasoned veteran of the Paralympics. He has competed in handcycling in two Paralympic Games and this will be his 5th Winter Paralympics. He had three top 20 finishes in Torino and placed 13th overall in the 2008 World Cup. Bob became disabled after falling off a roof and is now a venture capitalist who also designs sitskis. I wonder if he is the designer of the four sitskis "from California" I saw in use at Weston Ski Track last weekend, the same style shown used by Greg in this photo.
This will be the first Paralympics for Sean Halsted and Andy Soule. Sean is a US Air Force veteran who was injured falling out of a helicopter. Active in several adaptive sports, he placed 16th overall in the World Cup skiing circuit in 2008. Andy lost his legs to an improvised explosive device in the war in Afghanistan. Seeking a way to stay in shape, he jumped into competitive nordic skiing despite his lack of any previous skiing experience. He finished 12th overall in the World Cup circuit and will compete in the biathlon in addition to nordic races in Vancouver. The Paralympics offer a perfect place to channel the skills and energy of recovered veterans.
Keep an eye on http://www.paralympicsport.tv for coverage. It is there that I learned it can take years for nordic sitskiers to build their speed. This sport is unique in that its athletes can compete well into their 50's and still beat the field. The Winter Paralympics have only five basic areas of competition, yet each one is singularly inspiring and curiously different from its able-bodied counterpart.