Over and over, Christina Kouros has told coaches, administrators, and journalists that she just wants to be part of the team. The sophomore from Cape Elizabeth, Maine, started out by joining her high school’s outdoor track team, and this winter she joined the ski team, too.
Why is this impressive?
Kouros was born without a right leg.
But that hasn’t slowed her down. In the last two years she has represented her school using a bright orange racing wheelchair on the track and a specially-designed sit-ski on the trails. She also raced for Maine at Eastern High School Championships in Rumford this March.
“It was really nice to be a part of the team,” Kouros told FasterSkier in an interview.
She has become one of the first – if not the first – sit skiers in the country to compete in high school races.
“I don’t think that there have been other sit skiers to compete in high school competition in New England,” New England Nordic Ski Association (NENSA) Adaptive Programs Coordinator Eileen Carey told FasterSkier.
Kouros was not only accepted but embraced, cheered, and celebrated by the Maine high school ski community this winter, and everyone involved in her athletic career hopes that other states can learn from her example.
Before she tackled skiing, Kouros started with outdoor track. Getting her wheelchair to practice was the easy part; getting to compete just like any other athlete was harder. Luckily, she had an open-minded and hard-working administrator on her side: Jeff Thoreck, Cape Elizabeth’s athletic director.
“We had Christina participate in our conference track and field races,” Thoreck told FasterSkier in an interview, alluding to the 2010 spring season. “At that point, the Maine Principals’ Association (MPA), which governs our athletics for the state… didn’t have qualifying standards for wheelchair athletes because there hadn’t been a request.”
As a result, Kouros couldn’t go any farther than her normal conference meets. Unlike many of her teammates, she couldn’t compete at the state meet. But Thoreck was ready change that.
“Following that season, we started work with the MPA on coming up with some qualifying standards for wheelchair athletes for the state of Maine,” he said. “[We] worked on that through the fall, and that was passed by that group in the winter. So this spring, Christina is not only able to participate in our conference meets, but qualify for the state meets as well.”
Kouros did just that, and on June 4th she competed in the 800 meter race at the Class B state championship meet in Augusta, Maine. In her orange wheelchair, she raced along with 20 able-bodied runners and posted a personal-best time of 3:23.96.
Several news organizations throughout Maine have covered Kouros’s exploits on the track, and thanks to the new guidelines, two other wheelchair athletes competed for their high school teams this spring.
“Christina has made a difference,” Thoreck said.
Kouros, however, was the only one who qualified for the state meet – an accomplishment which was noted in many write-ups of the competition.
Early Days on a Mountainboard
After a successful 2010 season on the track, Kouros decided to try a similar approach with skiing. She had skied with Northeast Passage, an adaptive sports program based out of the University of New Hampshire, a few times before. So she asked Deven Morrill, Cape Elizabeth’s cross-country ski coach, whether she could join the team.
“I didn’t bat an eye,” said Morrill. “I said, ‘Let’s do it!’”
His enthusiasm was impressive, especially considering that Kouros had only been on snow “a couple of times” and Morrill had never coached a sit-skier.
“There were a lot of challenges as a coach to get it all to work, with one coach and twenty-five kids on the ski team,” Morrill said.
When the team began practicing, Maine didn’t have snow yet and Kouros was using a mountainboard that she had borrowed from Northeast Passage.
“Something as a coach you don’t think about until you have an adaptive skier is that she’s on the mountainboard the first day of practice and I say, ‘Okay, you’re going to go up this hill and come down it, and we’re going to do hill intervals here while the other kids do intervals next to us.’ Well, it never dawned on me that she can’t turn. So it’s all these little things that you and I take for granted that you have to really think through as a coach. To say, ‘you’re right, you can’t turn, and the road does, so you keep running into the curb.’”
In that situation, Morrill had to turn Kouros around on her mountainboard and help her get down the hill. When the team moved from dryland training to snow, he encountered plenty more moments when he had to think outside the box and alter his usual coaching strategy.
And it wasn’t just on-the-ground coaching that needed to change. The whole theory of training is different for adaptive skiers, and Morrill had to think hard about how much he could ask of his athlete’s arms, especially in the beginning of the season.
“It’s a juggling act as a coach… now you have an athlete who only has one set of muscle groups,” Morrill explained. “So that was another challenge with practices. On days when we’re doing leg strength, that’s not something she can do. Days where her arms were tired and we thought she should focus on her core, that’s what she did.”
But while Morrill was learning, Kouros didn’t complain.
“There’s not very many 15-year-old girls who will sort of throw caution into the wind and pride aside and say, ‘I want to do this, help me.’”
Both Carey and Kouros had high praise for Morrill, who recently received the inaugural NENSA Adaptive Achievement Award.
“Deven is an incredibly committed coach,” Carey wrote in an e-mail. “He has a busy full time job and coaches in addition to that, yet he always finds time to make sure Christina gets every opportunity to grow as an athlete.
“We were in regular communication this winter, talking about training, equipment, you name it. We would have these ‘wouldn’t it be great if….’ conversations one week and the next week he would call saying he had done it and was thinking about how to make it better or what the next step was.”
Finding Her Glide on the Snow
But enough about Morrill. What did Kouros think of the high school ski team experience?
“I really enjoyed it after the first two weeks,” Kouros said in an interview, without elaborating on how tough the initial period was.
But that’s Kouros, said Carey.
“Christina is an unassuming, positive kid who always has a huge smile, even through the toughest climbs,” she explained. “When you coach her, she doesn’t ask many questions, she just says ‘ok’ and goes out there and gets it done.”
Morrill was similarly impressed by the work ethic and courage that Kouros showed as the two of them worked to figure out how she could train with the team.
“Who she is and her attitude is why she chose nordic sport,” Morrill said. “She didn’t care what sort of obstacles stood in her way, and that’s what made it kind of easy.”
The wish that Kouros has stated so many times, to be part of the team, was fulfilled. Not only was she skiing, but she was skiing with her teammates, who would help her get her sit ski on the bus for practice and races and even ski at her pace during practice.
“They’d have snow days, and I’d figure out that Christina and three of her friends had gone out skiing for the day,” Morrill said.
By the end of the season, Kouros no longer needed Morrill’s help at practice. She could just go for a ski like the other athletes.
“It was really nice to be a part of the team,” Kouros said. “I felt like I was like a normal kid and that I could do whatever they were doing. The coach didn’t have any doubt that I could do it… they were all very helpful.”
Among the challenges Kouros faced was finding the perfect sit ski. After starting the season with a chair-style ski borrowed from Northeast Passage, she and her coaches realized that it wasn’t ideal for her particular disability. So Kouros, her doctor, her coach, and even the high school welding teacher got involved in making a better ski. It paid off, and she ended up with a ski where she could kneel instead of sitting.
“I had a really good sled the second part of the season,” Kouros said.
She also faced another big challenge. Because Maine (unlike, say, the International Ski Federation) didn’t have any guidelines for sit skiers competing in high school races, Kouros had to try to race the standard courses. She faced long uphills, steep downhills, and sharp corners, features which would throw even some of the best sit skiers, not to mention a 15-year-old girl competing in her first high school races.
“I thought it was really hard,” Kouros admitted of her first high school competition. “But [Morrill] was right behind me the whole time. His encouragement helped me finish the race.”
Morrill often skied behind Kouros in the races and sometimes had to help her up steep hills. Other times, the terrain forced them to take shortcuts on cutoff trails or simply through the trees to reach the next part of the trail which was safe for Kouros. If the shortcut involved crossing a road, Morrill would pick up Kouros, complete with her sit ski and poles, and place her on the other side.
Through all this, Morrill said, he didn’t hear a single complaint from another coach, and while Kouros was initially intimidated by some downhills, she learned to just give it a try.
“The breakthrough with her was that all of a sudden she was confident enough to do something that she really wasn’t all that confident about,” said Morrill.
Her attitude, according to Thoreck, was infectious.
“It’s been great for the [other] kids,” he said. “It’s a win-win. It’s been terrific for our students, and fantastic for Christina.”
“The girls and boys on my team would have preferred to enable her to race instead of racing themselves, if anything,” the coach said. “They do their race and then it doesn’t matter how tired they are, they’re going to put on their warmups and go out on the course to cheer for Christina.”
Although Kouros found happiness and success as a high school racer, she didn’t forget the program that had first gotten her on a ski, Northeast Passage. She competed in a few adaptive races as well as the White Mountain Classic 30 k, a distance that most able-bodied high school skiers would find intimidating.
So just like other junior skiers who have a high school team and a club team, Kouros always had plenty of support.
“I’ve met so many coaches,” she said. “There’s adaptive coaches all over the country, like my coach in New Hampshire. She has a whole team which is adaptive skiers… It’s really nice to have my high school team and all the adaptive skiers. I have two teams. It’s like the best of both worlds.”
Next winter, Kouros will again be a fixture on the high school circuit. But she will also focus on adaptive racing and has a bigger goal in mind.
“I will definitely keep doing adaptive races, and my goal is to go to the Olympics and show everyone the road that I went on in high school,” Kouros told FasterSkier.
While the Paralympics might seem like an big reach to some, Morrill for one had no doubt that Kouros could reach her goal, thanks to her incredible work ethic.
“I don’t see why she can’t do it,” he said. “So that’s it. That’s the goal we set, and I think that’s the goal she’s going to stick with.”
The athlete herself was honest about what she’d have to do to get to Sochi.
“I’m going to have to work harder,” Kouros said. “I’m going to keep doing high school racing. I have the next two years planned out, and then after that I’m not as sure. But I know I’m going to keep doing it in college. I’m going to keep strengthening to do longer races, and just keep doing what I’m doing.”
And in a change of direction, Morrill will be right there with her. For several years, he had been meaning to quit coaching to focus on his other job. But while he had found assistant coaches or new head coaches for a few of the last years, and hoped to really leave after the 2011 season, he now says that he will keep coaching Christina, although he hoped to minimize his involvement in the high school team.
Kouros isn’t the only one who hopes to improve in the next few years. Carey, NENSA’s Adaptive Programs Director, said that Kouros has given her a glimpse of what NENSA can accomplish.
“My goal is for anyone, anywhere in New England to have access to equipment, programming and coaching,” Carey wrote in an e-mail. “One of the biggest challenges is reaching potential participants. Christina’s participation on her team and Deven’s commitment as her coach have bigger implications on adaptive skiing than their personal experiences. When people see Christina cranking around the course on a sit ski, they think maybe they (or their sibling, friend etc.) can ski.
“I think it will open up doors for other people who may not even realize skiing is a possibility for them.”
For Thoreck, there are plenty more rules to tackle with the MPA.
“It’ll be a little more work with the nordic, because it’s a little more technical with the course setups,” Thoreck said. “So that will be one of our obstacles. I think that everyone who participated in that committee to get those guidelines [for track] was extremely willing to make this work, and they did a lot of legwork and a lot of research.”
While it’s a little bit harder to visualize what adaptive guidelines will look like for skiing, Thoreck was positive about what Maine could accomplish.
“The coaches are extremely passionate and willing to accommodate and do what they can to make this work.”
Did he have any words of wisdom for other coaches or administrators who might receive inquiries from adaptive athletes?
“There might be some work involved, but when you have an opportunity like this, it doesn’t matter.”