In art and dream may you proceed with abandon. -Patti Smith
By Mark E. Smith
The only sport that my disability level ever truly allowed me to compete in was downhill sit-skiing in the 1980s, when the technology – a kayak-type device, steered with short poles and edges on the bottom – just matched my limited coordination well enough to allow me to snow ski. In fact, it taught me a lot about how having the courage to push our boundaries isn’t about risks, but rewards.
It was the 1988 Western Regionals for what then was called National Handicapped Sports and Recreation, the governing body of adaptive snow skiing. In order to qualify for Nationals, one had to time in at Regionals, and my region was especially competitive because it was home to world-class athletes like Marilyn Hamilton, Dave Kiley, and Peter Axelson. However, I was lucky in that adaptive ski technology was rapidly changing that year, and those three ultra-skiers were in a new class called “mono-skis,” a technology that my lack of balance wouldn’t allow. So, the sit-ski class that I raced in was much smaller that season; yet, ultimately no less competitive.
My foremost competition was Mike Moleski, a paraplegic who was almost twice my age and definitely twice my size. I was a skinny 17-year-old kid with cerebral palsy, and Mike was a 30-something jock with muscles galore. He was also a bit of a loose canon. He appeared every bit your stoned surfer dude, right down to bleach-blond hair, and he sit-skied like he was on fire. I don’t know why, but when everyone else moved to the newer technology mono-ski class, he stayed in the sit-ski class with me.
And, I had no hopes of beating Mike, no matter how well I skied. He was too big, too strong, too coordinated, and too daring for me to realistically compete against on the race course. And, my coach knew it. “You’ve got three possible outcomes here,” my coach told me. “You can ski your own race and finish the course, but likely not qualify for Nationals. You can ski with abandonment and risk blowing out of the course, getting disqualified. Or, you can ski with abandonment and at least have a shot at keeping up with Mike and qualifying for Nationals.”
Of the three choices, only the two made sense to me: Ski with abandonment. Taking the safe way would get me down the course, but likely not with the time that I needed, so why even race? However, while skiing with abandonment would risk a disqualification if I got out of control and missed a gate, blowing the course, I still had an equal chance of ranking a leading time if by some miracle I could pull it off. I figured out of the three choices, only skiing with abandonment – and pulling it off – gave me a shot at qualifying for nationals.
The mono-ski class raced first, and the course was so steep and fast that they decided to start us sit-skiers off lower on the course. Mono-skis are a seat frame mounted to a single ski, with exceptional turning and edge control, so they handle high speeds and steep terrain better. Sit-skis are more of a sled, so they drift and speed can quickly become difficult to control. So, when I saw the steepness and speed of the course – even at half way – I was scared. I was no longer worried about blowing out of the course, but actually getting hurt.
Mike went first, and I saw his ski drifting as he flew down the hard-packed course, barely making each gate. If he was having trouble holding turns at speed, I was really in trouble. But, he finished the course, with a time I knew I couldn’t match – unless I skied with abandonment.
As the buzzer went off, I thrust myself out of the starting gate, and was immediately accelerated by gravity. Mike was smart in that he tried to stay in the trough carved by earlier racers, using it like a bobsled shoot to help steer his course. But, it likewise seemed to slow him down, so just past the first gate, I jumped out of the trough and opted a straighter, faster, more dangerous line, struggling to stay center course, hitting speeds that made it seem like the gates were much closer than they were. But, I soon figured that I really needed no technique, just abandonment. I applied no speed control whatsoever, and just used all of my strength to center the sled on each gate. And, as I hit the finish line, I had no hopes of stopping but to throw the sit-ski on its side, skidding to a stop in front of the crowd. Everyone cheered, including Mike – my time within a second of his – with my coach picking me up, sit-ski and all.
Sometimes in life – no matter sports, love, career, or disability, to name a few – the safest way isn’t always the surest or most rewarding way to accomplish what you wish. Sometimes you have to take calculated risks, and say, I don’t know how this is going to turn out. But, I’m going to put it all in my own hands, and give it a shot….