Racing from the Top: Challenge Aspen Ski Team

Becoming one of the best disabled skiers in the world is a simple task, according to Kevin Jardine, director of competition for Challenge Aspen in Snowmass Village, Colo. All it takes is a competitive personality and the desire and ability to commit to the challenge.

“Whether [people] had ever skied before or not, we could teach them how to ski and race, and they would have the potential to be the best disabled skiers in the country, if not in the world,” Jardine said.

The newest program in the United States for disabled ski racing, Challenge Aspen recruits physically and visually impaired athletes to the sport and readies them to qualify for the U.S. Disabled Ski Team.

Introducing the program

According to the Challenge Aspen Web site, the ski program is geared toward athletes with physical and visual impairments, in accordance with the rules set by the International Paralympic Committee (IPC). Eligible participants for the Competition Program must be able to ski independently, load and unload from the ski lift independently, pick themselves up after a fall, and be willing to commit the time and energy necessary to become a better skier.

Throughout the 2006–2007 winter season, Challenge Aspen hosted camps for mono skiers, standing skiers and visually impaired skiers, with the goal of introducing disabled ski racing to a new community of people and encouraging increased involvement in the sport. At these camps, recruiters for the organization mainly focused their efforts on newly injured veterans. Three athletes from that first mono ski camp — all new veterans — decided to stay for the winter and enter into full-time training, which jump started the program quicker than expected, according to Jardine. Since then, eight athletes have relocated to Colorado to join the full-time program.

Challenge Aspen Competition Team member Neil Duncan in practice
Challenge Aspen Competition Team member Neil Duncan in practice.
Image reprinted with permission of Heather Rousseau, Aspen Daily News.

Jardine hired a coaching staff, head coach Gwynn Watkins and assistant coach Jonathan Mika, to help him ready the athletes for the race circuit. One of his first tasks in building a staff was proving to his able-bodied coaches that teaching a skier with a disability is the same as teaching a skier without one.

“Skiing is skiing. A ski works the same way no matter if you are disabled or you are able-bodied,” Jardine said.

Now the staff focuses on transforming the full-time ski camp into a year-round program, with camps located on ski slopes around the world.

Originally an Alpine ski racer from Canada and the former head coach of the U.S. Disabled Alpine and Paralympic teams, Jardine oversees all aspects of the competition program. He manages the coaching staff, coordinates with sponsors, cares for the equipment, and still coaches as often as he can.

Joining the team

The Challenge Aspen Competition Team consists of 14 members, from Minnesota, Virginia, Ohio, New Jersey and Texas, among other states; seven are athletes who reside in Colorado and train full time, and seven train only part time and attend races with the team. Jardine wants the team to remain small, and invites only dedicated, talented skiers to join. To this end, the coaching staff determines whether interested people have the potential to qualify for the IPC Disabled Alpine Skiing World Cup.

Challenge Aspen also offers part-time training and race camps for those who would like to learn the sport but not participate competitively. In addition, a few skiers already in the disabled race circuit have joined the Challenge Aspen team for training sessions, including Laurie Stephens, who received two gold medals and a silver medal at the 2006 Paralympic Games.

Jardine explains that he has an open-door policy for people to attend camps and a more selective process for people to train full time.

Just as none of the coaching staff is disabled, no current member of the ski team had competitive skiing experience before joining the team. Although some were recreational skiers, this winter was their first full season skiing full time and living in the mountains.

Despite their inexperience, Jardine believes in his team’s potential, and pushes them as a team and individually to meet their goals.

“We want to make sure that our athletes have the training and the guidance that they need, whether they are on the U.S. Disabled Ski Team or they are a brand new skier. We want to support them at every level,” he said.

That support may make the difference in their accomplishments, he adds. Because the sport is just beginning to grow, much of the skiers’ potential to succeed depends on their motivation and commitment.

Committing to the sport

Heath Calhoun competes at Nationals
Heath Calhoun competes at Nationals.
Image reprinted with permission of Jessica Tidswell.

The team members who spoke to O&P Business News confirmed their dedication to excelling on the team and in the future.

Steve Karczewski, a left transfemoral amputee from High Bridge, N.J., races standing up using only one ski and outriggers, which are poles with skis on the bottom meant to stabilize the athlete. This was a strategic switch to improve his racing ability; when he skis for enjoyment, he uses his prosthesis. Still, it was a minor adjustment for Karczewski, who lost his leg to bone cancer as a toddler.

“Even skiing with a prosthesis, your real leg is your dominant leg. Your prosthesis is kind of just there as a guide,” he said.

Whether to compete in mono skiing or standing skiing was an obvious choice for veteran Neil Duncan, a left transtibial, right transfemoral amputee, originally from Savage, Minn. Mono skiing is his only chance to be competitive.

“You lack ability when you are using two prostheses,” Duncan said.

Additionally, he will not risk further injury by skiing standing up.

“Skiing is a great lifestyle, but at the end of the day, I need to be able to walk off of the mountain.”

Training the skiers

The team keeps a full schedule. Members train 5 to 6 days each week beginning in November and lasting through the middle of April. The program consists of completing circuits at the gym and skiing gates, which vary depending on the day’s discipline. In addition, members are required to spend time each day preparing their equipment for the next day.

After discussing the option with his wife and the Challenge Aspen staff, veteran Heath Calhoun, a bilateral transfemoral amputee from Grundy, Va., decided to devote himself to this schedule, despite the sacrifices.

“It is a big commitment,” Calhoun said. “For one, I’m living in Aspen for the winter.”

His wife and three children plan to relocate to Colorado in the near future.

As a team, Challenge Aspen attends every race in the North American disabled race circuit. Because the athletes have different situations and are operating with varied levels of funding, the coaches try to accommodate each and recommend races they should attend and races that are optional. During the competitions, the ski team participates in each of four events: slalom, giant slalom, super-G and downhill.

Jardine works with each athlete individually to set up a personalized training program, depending on family concerns, living situations and other conditions each might encounter.

“We try to communicate with them the best we can and get them what they need,” he said.

Measuring success

Since the competition program is the newest of its kind, Jardine and the rest of the organization concentrate on teaching the basics to team members. In some cases, skiers start by learning just what it is they need.

The coaching team educates skiers not only about racing, but about improving their skiing, developing their conditioning, working on nutrition and caring for the equipment. Jardine noted improvement in the athletes’ form has resulted in faster times.

“It is a lifestyle we are trying to make for them,” Jardine said. “I think it is a huge benefit for them that they are brand new athletes and that they are learning it the proper way from the beginning.”

The biggest lesson, however, for both current team members and prospective members is that it takes a multi-year commitment to become a top disabled ski racer.

“That is our goal for them,” he said. “We are not setting any deadlines because every individual is different, but we strongly believe that our athletes have the capability of being the best in the world.”

According to the team members, most of them have the same aspiration for themselves.

“Not everyone can just join this program,” Karczewski said. “Everyone on our team is a competitive racer. We all do the same races, unless we’re hurt, because all of us have the same goal.”

Karczewski also enjoys showing people what disabled athletes can accomplish.

“I love talking to people on the lifts,” he said. “You get a lot of questions out here, and it’s good to educate people about adaptive sports and being an adaptive skier. A lot of people think once they get hurt then they can’t do anything physical but that’s not the case.”

Challenge Aspen also has garnered support from the Aspen community, which Jardine channels when the team represents the organization at events. On March 4 – 8, nine team members competed in the 2008 U.S. Disabled Nationals in Soldier Mountain, Idaho, and members placed in each of the disciplines and categories.

Eventually, the Challenge Aspen staff looks forward to expanding the competition program to include other disabled sports, summer and winter, with training programs and coaching staffs for each. Possible camps include soccer, sailing, cycling and swimming. Jardine expects to assist the Wounded Warrior Project, the Competition Team’s title sponsor, in enabling more Wounded Warriors to participate in other Paralympic sports.

Recruiting others

Heath Calhoun competing on the slopes
Heath Calhoun moved to Aspen to compete on the slopes.
Image reprinted with permission of Jessica Tidswell.

Calhoun hopes to inspire other amputees to trust in their abilities.

“When they told me they had a ski trip I could go on, I [thought] how do they expect me to go out skiing when I don’t have legs? I have learned that, with adaptive equipment, you can do about anything,” he said.

He admits that he has succeeded in the sports he has tried, and enjoyed the experiences.

Duncan shares Calhoun’s sentiment. Veterans especially, he says, naturally put forth the energy necessary to succeed in physical challenges.

“I think [veterans] come standard equipped with the kind of motivation it takes to do something like this,” Duncan said, although it might not be evident to them at first.

“Everybody needs a kick in the butt … especially when you are lying no-legged in a hospital bed, hating the world,” he said. “I would like to help do that, because it is so important.”

Once people convince themselves to take that initial risk, an active lifestyle will fall into place. Calhoun now pushes himself to complete additional challenges.

“I have found, once you fight hard and work hard for skiing or running or whatever it may be, it is easier to work hard for the next thing,” he said.

For more information:

Stephanie Z. Pavlou is a staff writer for O&P Business News.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.