For mono-skier Stephani Victor and sled hockey goaltender Steve Cash, the Vancouver Paralympic Winter Games represent one major stop on a long athletic journey. They both have their minds on gold and will fight for it versus some of the harshest competition across the globe. Without losing sight of this ultimate goal, however, they each take to the Paralympic stage with something no other competitor has — an individual USOC Paralympian Sportsperson of the Year Award.
Awarded for the first time in late 2009, Victor was named the 2009 USOC Paralympian SportsWoman of the Year and Cash took home the SportsMan prize. Cash also takes the added bonus of being on the team that earned team recognition for the award.
Victor and Cash have their sights on the same podium at the Vancouver Games. To get here, however, they’ve taken different paths.
Meet Steve Cash
Cash underwent a Van Ness rotationplasty at the age of three years following a cancer diagnosis.
“From the story that I gather from my parents, I was complaining about my knee hurting and they didn’t really think anything of it,” Cash told O&P Business News.”A few days later I was in the backyard and I collapsed and they had to rush me to the hospital where they found out that I had cancer in my right knee.”
Because the procedure causes the foot to act as a knee, Cash explained that he was always able to play sports and have the free movement he desired, and required, growing up. His rough older brothers kept Cash’s competition spirit alive and thriving.
“I always wanted to do the same things they did and … just keep up with them,” Cash said. “I never really lost that competitive edge because the people I was around were always striving for more themselves.”
Cash started skating at the age of six years and first picked up a hockey stick at age 10 years when he began playing roller hockey. From then on, his ability and interest snowballed into much more than a hobby.
“I started out with kids my age and then a couple years later I entered a league with kids that were three or four years older than me,” Cash said. “I didn’t think I could keep up.”
Cash did keep up and he credits this kind of exposure – to more experienced and older athletes as he grew up – for much of his success.
At the age of 14 years, Cash recalls his first interaction with sled hockey coach Mike Dowling.
“He approached me and asked me if I wanted to try out sled hockey and that weekend I tried it and I liked it,” Cash said.
Things progressed quickly for Cash from that point on and just a few months later, during a tournament in Detroit he was formally invited to try out for the U.S. team being assembled for the 2006 Paralympic Winter Games being held in Torino, Italy. Cash was the backup goalie for those Games.
Cash learned first of the USOC award given to the U.S. Sled Hockey Team and was doubly shocked when he learned of his individual award.
“Our coach held a meeting and told us that our team had [been awarded] Paralympic Team of the Year,” Cash said. “Then he told me that I had received the [Paralympic Sportsman of the Year] Award. It came as a complete shock to me. It’s one of the best feelings I’ve ever had. It’s always an honor to receive an award of that caliber. And it’s something that I had never thought that I could have achieved but I guess anything is possible.”
Cash isn’t letting this award remove focus from his vision of the Vancouver Games.
“I’m most looking forward to standing on the podium with my teammates, receiving a gold medal and listening to the national anthem,” he said.
Meet Stephani Victor
Victor’s road to a life in mono-skiing followed a different course. In December 1995, Victor was struck by a drunk driver and pinned against a parked car.
“At that moment, it’s all reflexes. I remember the sound and then the cars separated and I hit the ground and I immediately tried to jump back up,” Victor recalled about her accident.
But she couldn’t answer her body’s gut reaction. Doctors would later amputate both of her legs transfemorally.
“I should have died,” Victor said. “Sometimes in life we make a declaration and it’s answered. It’s not always answered, but if it is answered, there is a responsibility to do something.”
Following her accident, the University of Southern California Film School graduate chose to film her recovery and rehabilitation in a documentary as a way to answer that declaration.
Another answer to that declaration came at an unlikely place. Nonchalantly, while attending the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah in 1999, Victor thought it might be fun to try skiing for the first time. She was in the right place at the right time and got her first of many lessons from Marcel Kuonen, then head of the Park City Disabled Ski Team. Two weeks later, Victor committed herself to a career in skiing and moved to Park City. Then the two began a three year race to the 2002 Paralympic Winter Games in Salt Lake City.
“I thought there’s no greater ending to my documentary than winning gold at the Paralympic Games in 2002,” Victor said.
She did achieve her gold medal but didn’t stop there.
“Last year I won three of the five races at the World Championships in Korea. It was a little overwhelming because I wasn’t doing anything differently, she said. “Sometimes it just happens.”
Veteran in Vancouver
Receiving the USOC Paralympian Sportswoman of the Year Award on the cusp of the Vancouver Games has been uplifting, Victor said.
“It was a huge boost that I greatly appreciated coming into these Games,” she said. “We now have five disciplines in our sport and I’m training so hard. It’s really intense to train all the different disciplines and have the expectations to do well.”
Even so, Victor isn’t taking the upcoming Games lightly.
“Whistler is a challenging race. We feel like we know the terrain inside and out but … everything can change,” she said.”What I’m most looking forward to is the opportunity to represent the United States … and I’ve had my best results since Torino.”
Coming into her third Paralympic Games as a veteran, Victor is more comfortable and expects to be able to reign in all the nervousness and to have fun.
“I don’t want to ski with confidence. I want to ski with preparation. I want to know that when I charge out of the gate, I will cross the finish line and I will have given the best that I can,” Victor said. “I think that’s a metaphor for my life.” — Jennifer Hoydicz