90 seconds into my ski with two members of the U.S. Adaptive Team, I was done feeling sorry for them.
I’d just stepped out of the Kincaid Park chalet and slapped a couple of layers of extra blue on my skis. The athletes were about a minute ahead of me, heading off down the hill. As they turned the corner and crested a small rise, they didn’t seem to be going very fast. I was worried that I was in for a slow plod around the course.
I finished waxing, stepped into my bindings and set out after them. Rounding one corner, I saw the skiers heading around the next bend, and I figured I’d catch them on the ensuing straightaway. I was wrong—they were halfway up the next hill before I’d finally managed to reel them in, using about twice the effort I anticipated needing.
For anyone who assumes adaptive skiers aren’t legit (as I myself did), let me straighten you out: you’re wrong. These guys haul ass. Literally. Over my hour-long outing with U.S. sit-skiers Andy Soule and Sean Halsted, I was working the whole time. Not hard, but neither were they—it was an easy day for them, between the two final races of their national championships.
Sit-skiing is straightforward—it’s double-poling while sitting or kneeling in a chair, with two skis attached. Those competing in the sport have either lost their legs, or at least the use of them.
Once I caught up with the group, I first talked with Dominic Monypenny, a Tasmanian competing in Anchorage as a guest of the U.S. Adaptive Team. A rower at the 2008 Paralympics in Beijing, Monypenny was recruited by the Australian Paralympic Committee to become the country’s first participant in sit-skiing at the 2010 games in Whistler, and he has been training in Vail under an American coach. Though he was moving quickly, he claimed to be not nearly as accomplished as the rest of the team, and split off on his own after a couple of kilometers.
Soule and Halsted, the two men I skied with, are military veterans. Soule lost his legs to a bomb in Afghanistan, while Halsted fell forty feet from a helicopter in a training exercise ten years ago. Both are going to the 2010 Paralympics.
We started by testing out the sit-ski loop that will be used in today’s 5/10k race. Soule and Halsted were using a smooth, strong double pole, but each had their own style. Soule used the swinging, close- and high-handed technique favored by Andy Newell, while Halsted’s stroke was quicker and more compact. According to Soule—who in addition to cross country is a World Cup champion in sit-ski biathlon—his technique has been honed over some 600 hours of training over the year. The regimen is a mix of weights, swimming, and rollerskiing on a mountain board (kind of like a snowboard with pneumatic tires), with an emphasis on speed and interval workouts.
As we continued along, I found myself getting distanced on some of the downhills. I was on classic skis, while those attached to the sit-skis were skate. Soule was on a pair of Fischer RCSs, and both men said they had a handful in their quivers. The skis they use have a softer flex to allow for better purchase, but they are waxed for racing similar to any other pair.
After moving off the sit-ski loop onto a more difficult trail, I was behind Soule as we came off a descent into a fast corner. To make it around, he leaned his upper body way out of his chair over his inside edge, putting a hand out on the snow to steady himself as he skidded around.
It was an impressive maneuver, and I asked Halsted about it. He said that as a double-amputee, Soule still had strong muscles in his trunk, which allow him to steady himself as he leaned far out of his chair. Paraplegics have weaker muscles and less control over their lower body, and consequently, Halsted said that he had to be more cautious than Soule on the downhills.
To keep things fair, adaptive athletes’ times are corrected according to their level of disability. So in the 15k that took place on Monday, while Soule had the fastest raw time of any of the sit-skiers by a minute and a half, he still ended up second to his teammate Chris Klebl by 45 seconds. As an amputee, Soule’s time was not adjusted at all, while Klebl, who is paralyzed, had his time multiplied by 0.94, which was enough to bring him from a two-minute deficit to the victory.
Soule didn’t seem to be dwelling on it, though—today, he and Halsted were just out for a spin. The talk was easy, and the skiing was great—not much different from recovery day on my own collegiate team.
About two thirds of the way through our ski, I was shooting a quick video behind Soule as he navigated a rolling downhill. I was so focused on steadying my camera that I didn’t notice the steep wall of a hill that had popped up directly in front of us until Soule had already started hammering his way up it. This was one heck of a pitch: 25 yards of climbing that I unquestionably would have to herringbone. If Soule wasn’t already most of the way to the top of it, I wouldn’t have believed he could have made it even halfway up.
Halsted—who had been more circumspect all morning about tackling tougher terrain—followed Soule with no hesitation. As his tempo slowed in the middle of the hill, for a few seconds I thought he might come to a dead stop and end up tumbling out of the sit-ski back down the hill. But he just kept turning it over, slowly making his way over the crest.
When I caught up with Halsted at the top, I asked him a question that had been chewing at me all morning: how did he think he could do against some elite able-bodied athletes, if they were strapped into a ski-like his?
“At first, you’re looking for that, not confirmation, but…”
“Validation?” I asked.
“Yeah, validation,” Halsted said. But then, he continued, after a while, you realize that the able-bodied skiers don’t have the same kind of musculature, and because of that, “it wouldn’t be fair.”
Skiing beside them at a comfortable pace with the full use of my legs, I imagined myself in a sit-ski. I had to agree.
Nathaniel Herz is a reporter for FasterSkier, who also covers city government for the Anchorage Daily News in Alaska. You can follow him on twitter @nat_herz.