Leaving home country to train a reality for Aussie Para skiers

Australian paralympic ski team coach Michael Milton skis toward the Flat Top Flyer lift as he heads up the mountain for the team’s practice at Powderhorn Mountain Resort. Milton has survived cancer twice including a bout at 9 years old that cost him his left leg. He has represented Australia at five Paralympic Games as a competitor. Before retiring from ski racing, Milton won 11 Paralympic medals, including four gold at the 2002 Winter Paralympic Games in Salt Lake City. Although there are mountains Down Under, Milton and his team know they need to train elsewhere during Australia’s summer months.

Skiing and snowboarding in Australia?

Sure enough, there are actually a few opportunities to go downhill Down Under.

But if members of the Australian Ski and Snowboard Para-Alpine Development Team want to someday compete in the Paralympics, they have to leave the world Down Under to find bigger and better mountains.

It’s summer right now in Australia, so the beaches are packed and the ski resorts are dry.

The members of the developmental team leave the Australian summer and travel to winter destinations to train and compete.

Coach Michael Milton said it takes a major commitment to be an Australian ski or snowboard racer.

“Sure, we miss home. Sure, we miss the beach in the summer, but that’s part of the sport,” he said. “Since it’s midsummer right now, we have to travel to winter locations to prepare for competition.”

Milton, who lost his left leg to bone cancer at the age of 9, is the most decorated Australian Paralympic skier ever with 11 medals, six of them gold.

When he was first diagnosed with cancer, he asked his mother if he would be able to ski again.

“She came back about a week later with a videotape. From then on it was my dream. Now as a coach, it’s great to be part of other people’s dreams,” he said.

There are six ski resorts in Australia, but the mountains are much smaller and rely heavily on man-made snow. The highest peak is approximately 7,000 feet.

“Personally, I love skiing through eucalyptus trees. I really enjoy the atmosphere,” Milton said.

As for developing Paralympians, he has another reason why he loves skiing in Australia.

“There are a lot of positives that come from skiing in Australia,” he said. “We ski in a variety of different snow conditions. It could be cold one day, snow the next and raining the next. That creates a little tougher athlete, which I love.”

With smaller mountains, the ski runs at Australian resorts are not real long.

“We don’t have a legal downhill course in our country,” Milton said. “Downhill is not where you start ski racing, but we have some guys working toward that.”

Vision-impaired skier Pat Jensen is OK with missing out on the Australian summer.

“I still love surfing and skating, but skiing has really taken over. I’d choose skiing any day now,” he said.


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