The biggest assembly of Olympians outside Vancouver is assembling in Aspen this week. You’ve probably never heard their names. You won’t likely catch them in commercials or on the cover of Sports Illustrated. But when it comes to overcoming adversity, they’re what the Olympics is all about.
Aspen is hosting the International Paralympic Committee 2010 Alpine World Cup finals, the culmination of the adaptive skiers race series, and for most of the competitors, the final race before the Paralympic Winter Games in Vancouver later in March. It’s the first time Aspen has hosted the finals, and the second time it has hosted an adaptive World Cup event.
“We’d love to have as many as we can,” said Kevin Jardine, director of competition for Challenge Aspen, which is hosting the event at Buttermilk.
“We definitely want to keep the adaptive World cup here in the future.”
Some 120 athletes from 18 countries plan to compete in the games, the top competition for disabled skiers next to the Paralympics.
Racers, who will be based in Carbondale during their stay, come to test their limits and exceed the boundaries of what many never thought possible for an amputee, paraplegic or visually-impaired person to accomplish.
“I don’t feel like I’m disabled,” said Joe Tompkins, of Juneau, Alaska, a former U.S. Ski Team adaptive skier who moved to Aspen to train with Challenge Aspen.
Training is scheduled to take place Sunday and Monday. Downhill races are set for Tuesday and Wednesday, followed by super combined (slalom and super G) on Thursday and super G on Friday. All events are slated for the Racer’s Edge course on the Tiehack side of Buttermilk. Race times have not been set but are expected to begin around 11 a.m.
“I am absolutely going to go out and try to crush it,” Tompkins said.
A two-time Paralympian who, like most of the competitors at the World Cup finals, is preparing for the Vancouver Games set for March 13-21 on the women’s downhill course, Tompkins said he has no plans to take it easy at the World Cup, and he has his eyes on the gold in Vancouver.
“I hope the third time’s a charm,” he said.
Their gear may be different from able-bodied skiers, but their speeds aren’t far behind them. The fastest Paralympians can top 70 mph, only a few miles behind Olympian racers.
Some sit in sit-skis. Some stand with the help of outriggers on their poles. Some are visually impaired, chasing downhill after a guide, like Gwynn Watkins, the former head coach for Challenge Aspen who will serve as racer Catie Sarubbi’s eyes on the World Cup and Paralympic courses.
“My main responsibility is to keep her safe on the hill,” said Watkins, who has undergone the same training as the racers. As a guide, she has to be as fast her racer, even if she’s sometimes skiing backwards.
Five Challenge Aspen team members qualified for the Paralympics. In addition to Sarubbi and Tompkins, they are Mark Bathum, of Seattle; Heath Calhoun, of Clarksville, Tenn., the first veteran in Challenge Aspen’s Wounded Warrior program to compete; and Laurie Stephens, of Wenham, Mass., who won two golds and a silver in Torino and plans to compete again in all five events in Vancouver.
“They’re not adaptive skiers; they’re ski racers,” said Jardine, a former adaptive coach for the U.S. Ski Team. The courses are the same, he said. So are the rules. “We’re trying to work on each one individually to build on their strengths and overcome their weaknesses.”
The gear isn’t the only difference, though. Competitors need to overcome their disabilities, too, to speed down the course as fast as possible.
Tompkins said he was a promising young baseball player when a car accident with a drunken driver sent him crashing into a tree, leaving him paralyzed and ending his hope for a baseball career.
He sank into depression for two years, he said, before his son, born just a month before his accident, snapped him out of it.
“I decided I had to start showing him how to live instead of how not to live,” Tompkins said.
Skiing helped turn his life around, he said. So did beating his able-bodied buddies at golf — one-handed.
“I do just as much as anybody else, I think,” he said. “I golf. I ski. I fish. I coach baseball. I kayak. I work on classic cars. I think it’s a mentality. They think because you’re in a wheelchair you’re disabled. It’s just a different way for me to get around.”