Rush of flying down a mountain on skis motivates Australian Para-Alpine Development Team members
Pat Jensen is legally blind and likes to go fast.
Jonty O’Callaghan has cerebral palsy and loves to go fast.
Sam Tait is paralyzed from a motorcycle accident but still loves to go fast.
This trio of skiers, along with three others from Down Under, are members of the Australian Ski and Snowboard Para-Alpine Development Team that just wrapped up a seven-week training camp at Powderhorn Mountain Resort.
Tait, his left arm tattooed with a complex tangle of ink and a piece of steel dangling from the side of his lip, smiles when he talks about the excitement of going fast on his mono-ski.
“Sometimes, it’s a little scary when I know I’m going way too fast,” he said with a grin. “But it’s a great feeling when your head is two inches away from the snow and you’re making big, carved turns.”
Every member of the Australian developmental team dreams of skiing in the Paralympic Games someday. They have a variety of disabilities, but their dream and resolve seem to be unbreakable.
Tait, 24, has to be patient for now because he’s not quite ready for competition.
Going on two years since the accident that now confines him to a wheelchair, Tait shifts his gaze downward when he talks about the hideous accident that left him paralyzed. He still has no memory of the three days after the crash.
“Waking up and realizing that I was never going to walk again was pretty full on,” he said. “I remember talking to my dad that first week after and telling him that I was going to go for the Paralympics in skiing.”
None of these athletes see excuses in their disabilities. Rather, they admit in some ways they may be stronger and more focused because of them. All three agree skiing is now molding their futures.
An instant love of skiing
For Jensen, he never really thought about skiing until he jumped off a staircase with his skateboard and smashed his right heel.
“I originally thought I’d like to give snowboarding a go because I surf and skate, but there was no vision-impaired snowboarding,” the soft-spoken 19-year-old said. “Then I went to a ski camp, and I realized how much I love skiing.”
With a mop of thick blond hair tucked under his gray wool stocking cap, he talked about the instant appeal of skiing that came the first time he popped into ski bindings.
“I knew as soon as I put skis on, it was a completely different feeling than I’d never felt before. I loved it straight away,” he said, smiling.
Even though his vision is progressively getting worse, he still doesn’t let it affect his love of sports such as surfing, skateboarding, running and, now, skiing.
“Driving is really the only thing I can’t do that my mates can do,” he said.
“Patto,” as his mates call him, developed an interesting view of his vision problems when he was young.
“When I first found out that I was legally blind, I was almost happy that I didn’t have to wear glasses,” he said, then let a bit of an embarrassed grin take over. “I know that was stupid, but I was just a little kid.”
Skiing, and the speed that comes with it, was a perfect fit for Jensen’s thrill-seeking personality.
“I’ve always pushed myself to do whatever I wanted to do. Skiing is just another thing I can do to push my limits. I don’t like to play it safe,” he said. “It never crossed my mind (to play it safe). Mum and dad worried a bit because it was a whole new, different thing.”
But mum and dad weren’t about to get in the way of his dream, and Jensen remembers the day when he knew skiing was his sport.
“The first time I went skiing, I went with my dad, and I said, ‘Let’s race,’ ” he said. “I just went straight down, and at the bottom I was laughing my head off.”
But it was a ski camp that changed Jensen’s life.
“Somebody asked me if I wanted to ski for Australia someday, and I was just beside myself. I just thought that would be so wicked,” he said with an equally wicked grin.
As a vision-impaired skier, Jensen said it’s all about trusting the guide who helps him navigate through the gates.
Using a radio system in the helmets, the guide communicates as he skies ahead of the vision-impaired skier.
Jensen and O’Callaghan competed in Park City, Utah, in late January and both made the podium in their events.
Learning to ski early
O’Callaghan, 18, is a seasoned skier, who is close to qualifying for the World Cup series.
His third place in Park City was a thrill for the teen who first hit the slopes at 9 years old.
“It was my first podium in America, and obviously it was very fulfilling,” he said. “It adds another bit of motivation to continue to succeed in the sport.”
O’Callaghan was diagnosed with cerebral palsy at 9 months old. The disease affects the right side of his body, so he skis with one pole.
“It really doesn’t affect me that much. You just have to adapt,” he said, then smiled. “I guess that’s why they call it adaptive racing.”
When he was 9, his parents were planning a long vacation.
“It came down to traveling around Australia in a van or going to Europe on a ski trip,” he said. “Fortunately for my skiing career, my parents chose the latter.”
Like his mates, it is the speed of skiing down a mountain that appeals to him.
“I realized early on that I thoroughly enjoyed going fast, and racing was a way to channel that.”
Tall and slender, O’Callaghan said his body type is more suited for long, fast courses.
He smiled when he admitted he crashes fairly often.
After he placed third in the slalom at Park City, O’Callaghan was soon on the phone back home to his parents.
“I let them know right away. They were happy, especially given that I don’t have a very high finish rate,” he said. “They usually ask very quickly if I finished or not.”
He crashed out of the giant slalom at Park City after a fast first run.
“If I finish, my results are normally pretty good,” he said.
Some of his crashes have been violent, and he admitted he’s had “some concussions.”
“I was once choppered off an Austrian glacier after crashing,” he said, referring to a helicopter ride.
Paralympics is the dream
For the members of this developmental team, the ultimate goal is to represent Australia in the Paralympics in 2018 or 2022.
Tait is eager to get into competition.
“Watching the mono-skiers race (at Park City), I was really itching to get down there and see how I compared to them,” he said. “I’m aiming for the 2018 Paralympic Games, but I know that may not be realistic. I’m going to try and prove everyone wrong.”
Each member of the team has a different story about what brought them to be on the para-alpine developmental team. But they’ve all found joy, motivation and purpose in skiing or snowboarding, and they all are working and dreaming of making it to the Paralympics.
“The ultimate goal is to win medals at the Paralympic Games,” O’Callaghan said. “One day, I hope I can be in contention to do that.”
They all dream of those Paralympic Games and have the resolve to get there, but they are realistic about where they are right now. They are still developing and learning how to race and to race better.
“I want to medal at a Paralympic Games, but I don’t want to stop there. I just want to keep going until I’m at my personal best,” Jensen said.
If any of them develop into Paralympians someday, they might remember training at a little Colorado ski resort about 9,000 miles from home.
That seven weeks at Powderhorn helped them take another step in their development.
Every one of these athletes is still developing, and those Paralympic Games are still a long way away.
But these Aussies have come a long way already.