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What Adapted Skiing Has Taught Me About Life With a Disability

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by Saylor O’Brien

“Every soul who comes to earth with a leg or two at birth must wrestle his opponents knowing it’s not what is, but what can be, that measures worth. Make it hard, just make it possible and through pain, I won’t complain. My spirit is unconquerable. Fearless I will face each foe for I know I am capable. I don’t care what’s probable, through blood, sweat, and tears I am unstoppable.” — Anthony Robles

I stared at that quote from my hospital bed, fighting back tears. Those words were all I could think about, written on the hospital’s whiteboard in my mother’s familiar scrawl.

How often had I read those words when I was young? They hung on the wall in my childhood home. I read them every day. A reminder — so simple, yet so powerful.

I am capable.

I am unstoppable.

My spirit is unconquerable.

As a child growing up with spina bifida, a condition that causes paralysis in the spine, the last thing I felt was invincible. From birth, my parents knew my life would be full of challenges. But sports represented an opportunity. They were an outlet, a chance to do things differently; to own who I was and embrace living with a disability.

Yet, none of the sports stuck, until I tried skiing. Then, I felt alive. I loved every moment and I never wanted that feeling to go away.

I began at the age of 4 by standing in an old pair of skis and ski boots while watching my favorite TV shows. This seemingly simple exercise made me aware of the art of balance, of presence in the moment. For the first time, I felt fearless. I knew something incredible was possible.

I took to the slopes and began formal lessons. The wind, the snow, the feel of the ground moving beneath you. It’s hard even now for me to describe it. My disability didn’t define me on the ski hill. I was fast, I was strong, I was powerful.

My love for the sport only grew and I aimed my sights higher: competitive ski racing. With the help of the National Ability Center, an organization that provides adaptive recreation and outdoor adventures for individuals and families with differing abilities, I knew my dream could become a reality. Their program made me feel that the possibilities were truly limitless.

I made their competitive ski team and embarked on a new goal: to take part in the 2022 Paralympic Games.

For someone with disabilities, this was huge. From early on, I questioned what my life would be like. Yet as a teenager I had not only discovered my passion, but also found a way to harness my ability, skills and drive to pursue it competitively.

It’s not what is, but what can be, that measures worth…

My spirit is unconquerable.

I began a rigorous training schedule: five-days-a-week training sessions in the winter and camps in the offseason to maintain my skills. To say I was always dedicated would be misleading. I am a teenager, after all. If I’m being honest, there were days (still are) when I don’t feel like doing it. I wonder what it would be like to have a more typical teenage experience, to go to high school alongside my peers. I pause and think, what is this all for?

Then, I remember how far I’ve come and how far I can go. Following your passion comes with sacrifice.

I am capable.

I am unstoppable.

So, I pushed forward in pursuit of my dream, letting my success speak for itself.

My goal was within reach. I could almost hear the crowds roaring at the 2022 Paralympics in Beijing.

And then came last summer. An ATV ride, a crash, burns on my leg. Multiple surgeries. The looming questions, which felt too painful to even speak out loud: Will my ski career continue? What will I do if my ski season isn’t in the picture?

I have always said it’s important to find the fun in the hard parts of life. But, at that moment, nothing felt fun. It felt hard. It felt painful. It felt like failure.

As I sat in my hospital bed, I stared at my mother’s writing on the whiteboard.

I don’t care what’s probable. Through blood, sweat and tears, I am unstoppable.

There was a deep ache within my gut, a burning desire to keep going. I wanted this. I needed this.

This body may have disabilities, but it’s just as strong. It’s just as capable. My dreams are just as real.

And with each passing day, I did the work. I pushed my body to be healthy again. I made it to ski season. Because my goals will not go unreached.

And now here we are, in the midst of training. My dream remains: compete in the 2022 Paralympic Games. If I close my eyes, I can picture it: the rush of the wind, the spray of the snow, the feeling of freedom that comes with skiing. I see those who have believed in me all along, my parents, my teammates, my coaches from the National Ability Center.

And I have hope that by the time I get there, the same media energy that accompanies the Olympics will also showcase the Paralympics.

Because disabilities are a rich, diverse, unique experience. They are not a disadvantage.

Dreams don’t stop just because you do something in a different way.

We all are capable.

We can all be unstoppable.

Our spirits are unconquerable.

Originally published: October 21, 2020
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