This story first appeared in The Outsider, the premium outdoor newsletter by Jason Blevins.
In it, he covers the industry from the inside out, plus the fun side of being outdoors in our beautiful state.
It took years, but on May 23, history in the equality of U.S. competitive skiing was made when U.S. Ski and Snowboard, the national governing body for skiing and snowboarding in the country, announced it would merge the U.S. Para Alpine Ski and Snowboard team with its nondisabled equivalent onto one roster, the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Team.
The move arrives amid inclusivity pushes by the U.S. Olympic Committee and major sponsors whose ad campaigns you’ve seen during the Winter Games.
In 2019 the USOC changed its name to the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee. In 2020, Paralympians received the same medal award payment as their fellow Olympians. And in 2021, Toyota created what it called a “historic” fund of nearly $5 million in stipend and sponsorship opportunities that provided all eligible Team USA Paralympic athletes in training and in contention to represent the U.S. at the Tokyo and Beijing Games with $3,000 to offset the cost of their training.
In 2018, the car company launched its first Winter Paralympics ad campaign, featuring skier Lauren Woolstencroft, an eight-time gold medalist who was born missing both legs below her knee, as well as part of her left arm. Four years later, Canadian Paralympian Brian McKeever and his brother Robin were the subjects of the campaign, which featured Robin, who is sighted, guiding Brian, who is blind, during Brian’s pursuit of his Paralympic dream.
The campaign’s “Start Your Impossible” slogan stuck and people seemed unable to keep telling the para athletes how much they inspired them. Not that the athletes didn’t like it. Erik Petersen, head Alpine coach for the National Sports Center for the Disabled’s competition center, now hears athletes joke, “Here we go again. I’m someone’s inspiration” all the time.
But the new merger further levels the playing field for winter para athletes, by pumping more money into their training, elevating their profile and increasing their legitimacy inside and outside the United States, Petersen said.
“It aligns with the inclusivity and diversity push that everyone’s doing. It’s awesome for us, because para athletes are really just athletes that do stuff differently. I’ve been coaching para skiers for 20 years and we’ve been waiting for this movement. It’s opening doors.”
One of the challenges the paralympic Alpine team has had to deal with in years past is the timing of the Winter Paralympics, Petersen said. “The Olympic Winter Games occur in February, during the prime time of most countries’ winter seasons, but the Paralympics have always happened in March. At some of the venues we’ve gone to, like Sochi and Beijing and PyeongChang, their snow quality is deteriorating by then.”
Another has been trying to get appropriate access at resorts in various countries.
“You’ll find that in Europe. I’ll go to a resort wanting to host an event and you mention para and they’re like ‘no,’” Petersen added. “It could be they’re not equipped — their lifts don’t accommodate para skiers or their lodge has stairs. The EU doesn’t have the same level of American Disability Act requirements as the U.S. does. Trying to get a sit-skier into a gondola without the proper apparatus is almost impossible. We ran into that in Vancouver, and solved the problem with six volunteers lifting our sit-skiers into and out of the gondola. But would you like to be manhandled, even by kind and generous people?”
In 2010, the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Committee took over the para teams from U.S. Ski & Snowboard (then USSA), because they were able to better financially support the sports at the time, said Courtney Harkins, director of marketing and communications for U.S. Ski & Snowboard. Then the international federation for skiing and snowboarding sports, or FIS, brought para under its belt in January 2022.
FIS oversees the Olympic disciplines of alpine skiing, Nordic skiing, ski jumping, Nordic combined, freestyle skiing and snowboarding. It holds six world championships and 330 world cup events annually. Membership within FIS “helps para athletes integrate more seamlessly into their national programs, and gives them access to FIS resources — events, venues, and valuable media rights that teams can use to fund their development,” the organization says.
Anouk Patty, U.S. Ski & Snowboard’s chief of sport, said the team will give para athletes even more leverage. “What we are doing on the able-bodied side we’re doing on the para side, and we are taking the same athlete-centric approach to delivering all the services needed to enable athletes to reach their full potential.”
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A press release from the team said para athletes will get the same “elite coaching, sport science, sports medicine, high performance staff and education opportunities.” They’ll also have access to the 85,000-square-foot U.S. Ski & Snowboard Center of Excellence, a state-of-the-art training center that blends “the best of high-performance athletic facilities with things like strength-training areas, a gymnasium, ski and snowboarding ramps, trampolines, a nutrition center and recovery/rehabilitation facilities.”
“We’ll use our existing training agreements and lean on our partners to provide the same access to world-class training, including integrating able-bodied and para training when possible and sharing best practices across teams to raise the bar across the board,” Patty added. “We already have one para athlete who is joining our able-bodied national snowboardcross team for a training camp in Mammoth” the week of June 5.
That athlete was three-time Paralympic gold medalist Evan Strong, who, from a chairlift at Mammoth in California, said he could already feel a heightened sense of camaraderie between the formerly distinct teams.
“This is my first camp with U.S. Ski & Snowboard as our new governing body, and all of the able-bodied riders and staff have given me a warm welcome. I’ve gotten tips and tricks and encouragement from (Olympic and NorAm riders) Jake Vedder and Senna Leith. I’m grateful I’m getting a lot of training done so early, so when I get into the start of the next race season, in November, I’ll be 100%. I know it’s good for me to train with people faster than me. And who’s faster than me? The able-bodied boardercross team.”