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  • Writer's pictureErin Clark

Adaptive Downhill Skiing

I skied for the first time when I was in grade eight and my class went on a day trip to the local hill. My classmates quickly graduated from the bunny hill to the easy run, but I struggled. I had clamped myself into ski boots sturdy enough to act like like leg braces, but I couldn’t hold the rest of my body upright. I eventually used my crutches, trailing them behind me for counter balance, my knees bent like I was in a seat so I could use the stiffness of the boot to lever and sway my torso from side to side to turn. It was ridiculous and it worked spectacularly. After a couple slow test runs I, too, was ready for the easy run.

An instructor from the ski school caught me on one of my swishes into the lift line, waving a half crutch/half ski at me and said, "There’s a program for this, with equipment adapted for all kinds of disabilities, we’d love to have you if you wanted to enroll.”

"I already invented adapted skiing for today,” I laughed, and joined the program, skiing every Saturday for many seasons.

Skiing was the sport that transitioned with me. I started using my wheelchair full-time when I was 13, switched to a sit ski, and took up downhill racing. An upgrade in mobility, if you ask me. But then I went to Kenya where there was no ski program and I never again lived near a ski hill. Whenever I was near skiing, I’d look up adapted programs, but nothing ever worked out. Once, I went along on a fancy ski holiday with my ex husband, just to be in the skiing atmosphere. I did not ski. Nearly two decades passed.

Last week Lana invited me to her cottage in Calabogie. “We’re going skiing!” she said. “Skiing?” I googled Calabogie Peaks, they had a CADS (Canadian Adaptive SnowSports - which you can make donations to if you so desire) program. I called several numbers, and emailed every email address and quite nearly begged, "I know it’s last minute, but is it possible?”

Deb, the directer at Calabogie replied. “It is. Let’s make it work, let’s get you out there!”

I took a train to Ottawa, drove with Lana into the Canadian Shield - the landscape of my birth and early childhood - watched the sun set over the frozen lake, witnessed by a dense council of evergreens, woke up ready to ski.

I was greeted by name and with big smiles. Maddie, who had been given the last minute assignment to join our little team (and to bring the go pro with her, like they knew who I was). Phil, the equipment guy, and Deb, the director of the program who had made my skiing dreams come true.

I have all the right clothes for skiing. When I bought clothes to hunt northern lights in Norway 3 years ago, I bought a Norwegian brand ski jacket and ski pants and several thermal layers and wool. I had to buy warmer gloves when I transited from Spain through Finnish winter to Canadian winter and I picked the gloves most suited to skiing, not gripping wheelchair rims. Even my fashion choices followed a particular logic: if I needed to be warm, I might as well also be ready for looking good and being comfortable for my snowy dream adventure. I looked so cute and was so warm. Phil selected a helmet with pink accents to go with my gloves. Very correct ski assistant technique. But would I have ski skills? After all this time?

“How much like riding a bike is it?” I joked with Phil when he asked how I wanted to approach this. “I don’t think I’ll need any tethering, but lets take it slow and see what we’re working with.”

We strapped in, shoving foam between my legs, tugging straps and making-do with a bucket not positioned as exactly as Phil wanted. "Normally, it takes abount an hour or so to get someone properly fitted." He said. We didn't have an hour, we needed to ski. I practiced tipping over and getting back up, rising up for the chair lift to swoop in under me, and then we were off.

You. Guys.

I have so many skiing skills! Down, and balance and turn, and stop and fast.

“You love the speed!” I heard Phil call out to me, when the run opened up and I relaxed into it. Our first run, none of my team mates knowing at all what I was capable of, me not being entirely certain either. The slope and shush of snow took over, the tight, tree-lined course cinching my focus, tiny prickles of chill against my cheekbones.

Each run we tweaked, technique and gear. Phil telling me how to position my shoulders, Skiing near enough behind to catch me if I suddenly needed it, shouting reminders of what we’d discussed on the chair lift at me over the sound of my outriggers carving tracks in the hillside. “drop your shoulder, open the door wider, that’s it!”

The local sit ski racer super star, Andy, sat at the bottom of the hill to watch me come in. “I’m impressed that you can take turns like that in a ski not fitting you right.” He commended in his very Canadian accent, r’s hard and vowels long and lazy.”

“Can I ask you, I can feel that I’m squeezing my hands so hard, gripping so tight, my wrists ache, I know it’s mostly nerves, but if you’re not gripping at all, I also know I’m working too hard - How do you control your turns precisely without the tension?” I asked him.

He grabbed a tube tied to his outrigger in his teeth and pulled, the ski flipped up against the crutch so he could dig the jagged edge into the snow for stability. I did the same thing by squeezing a taught bungee along the handle with my palm.

“One thing I’ve noticed is that you have your outriggers really close to you,” he pulled his outriggers up under his shoulders so that his bicep was level with his shoulder. “When you do this, can you still lift the outrigger up?”

I imitated his position and lifted my arm, creating at least a half an inch of space between my outrigger and the ground.

“If you have longer outriggers, you can push them further away from you without having them leave the ground.”

Phil lengthened my outriggers asymetrically to offset my curvature, produced a piece of foam from his coat to shove into the bucket behind me to make a tighter fit and took me up for my last run.

“Is your grip still tight?” He shouted as I played with my turns.

“It was until you reminded me!” I shouted back and I relaxed, reached my arm further away from me, turned the smoothest set of turns yet.

And then I pulled up to the lip of a steep part, there were a series of children on snowboards sitting just under the crest, hard to see, too close together, adjusting equipment and being live slalom markers. I’d wait until they moved.

“You know, you can do this. I was going to encourage you to ski it and go around them.” Phil said.

In an afternoon, we had discovered what I could do and he was already coaching me to use it. I gulped. And headed down. “It’s the next step, anyway.” Phil called out. “Timing your turns.”

I took a wide angle around the first kid, but needed a tighter turn to avoid the second one, and it was to the left, the direction I had less control on. I picked my moment, shifted pressure into my right hand, pressing my outrigger into the snow. I swept my left hand uphill and out as wide as I could reach without lifting off the slope, the ski and my body leaning into it. I turned, picking up speed. I cut back to the right, a little wider back to the left and then straightened out while Phil shouted behind me. “That was great! You had a lot of speed and then spent it with control!”

I was exhausted. I toppled over twice on that last run. My forearm’s ached, my spine listed heavily to the right and I just slumped into it, my toes were getting cold. When the hill flattened out at the bottom, Phil took the handlebar in the back and skied me into the chalet.

“The official CADS program is on Sundays,” Andy said to me, both of us back in our chairs. “But Andy’s racing program is on Fridays and Saturdays and I have a top of the line mono ski, we could get you so perfectly fitted to it, imagine what you could do in that.”

“Fancy gear is exactly the way to entice me,” I replied.

If I was staying in Ontario we’d have been planning my immediate enrollment in Andy’s personal racing club. Instead, I dreamed of the next winter, sharing my life between mountains I fly off and mountains I ski down.

In the car on the way back to the cottage, my blood hummed through me like a post adrenaline lullaby. I’d had so much speed, so much energy, a decades long urge gathering momentum, and I’d spent it with total control.

My favorite way to live.

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