Driving his uncooperative truck about 30 miles per hour on a highway shoulder, Bob Balk kept his spirits up. Sure, he had just spent about $900 to fix the vehicle, only to have the mechanics return it scratching their heads. Maybe it was bad gas; they couldn’t tell.
But the seven-time Paralympian was used to challenges, so driving three hours roundtrip from his hometown in Moravia, N.Y., to Rochester didn’t phase him. Balk could empty the tank and meet his mother for lunch before returning home.
The next day on Dec. 1, he flew to Beijing for the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) General Assembly. The Athletes’ Council chairperson, Balk would be there for about 10 days.
Before that, he had only been home for about two weeks since returning from Guadalajara, Mexico. There, he competed as a U.S. ParaCanoe athlete at the Parapan American Games. In August, he won silver at the ICF Sprint World Championships, a multidiscipline canoe and kayak event, in Szeged, Hungary.
In January, Balk will be overseas again in Innsbruck, Austria, for the 2012 Youth Olympic Games. While the 45-year-old won’t be competing, he will be one of several Athlete Role Models at the first winter event, which takes place Jan. 13-22.
“It’s a great opportunity and it’s a lot of fun,” Balk said, after being an ambassador at the 2010 Summer Youth Olympic Games in Singapore. “It’s certainly not work.”
While he missed spending time with his 5-year-old triplets, Balk said in a phone interview that this was a busy time of year. As a member of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) Athlete Commission and the U.S. Olympic Committee (USOC) Athletes’ Council as well, Balk, who was paralyzed below the waist, never really stopped moving.
Unsure of his exact itinerary for the Youth Olympics, he expected to watch some events and talk about Olympic values with athletes and locals alike.
In Singapore, organizers set up several booths with athletes from different countries to share their cultures. Balk said he was there to interact with athletes as a role model. While every IOC Athlete Commission member will be an Athlete Role Model in Innsbruck, Balk said he was honored to be highlighted as one in a press release with Ukrainian Olympian Sergey Bubka, who holds the pole-vault world record.
Balk said the recognition showed the IOC’s support of adaptive sports. While they weren’t part of the Youth Olympics, his inclusion was a positive step for disabled athletes.
“I love meeting with the athletes, whether they’re Paralympic athletes or Olympic athletes,” Balk said. “I don’t see much of a difference except for some missing limbs or wheelchairs.”
Part of the reason he attends the games is to help others realize the same.
“I’m like the only guy in the wheelchair there,” Balk said. “I think it takes some of the athletes off guard. They’re like, ‘Why are you here?’ and we start talking and I think they understand.”
He helps them find common ground through talking about their sport. With a cross-country skiing athlete, for example, he might ask them about their equipment, training or technique.
“They would forget the fact that the guy they’re talking to is in a wheelchair,” Balk said.
He especially liked the format of the Youth Olympic Games (YOG) in that it facilitated discussions of Olympic values and what mattered beyond competition.
“It’s more than just beating the other guy,” Balk said. “It’s about sharing and friendship and peace. When you’re watching the Olympic games, it doesn’t always come to the forefront.”
After several years of coaching cross-country skiers, he said it was important for new athletes to speak with seasoned ones about challenges and how to overcome them.
“You just see on their face how inspired they are to keep doing it,” Balk said. “(It’s) a lot of work, not a lot of notoriety … particularly for a sport like cross-country skiing in the U.S. It’s not a limelight sport, you just kind of do it because you love it.
“Certainly I’m a cross-country skier, but I have a great appreciation for all athletes in their sport,” he added.
Balk has his share of sports experiences. Born in Milwaukee, he mostly grew up in Rochester and played rugby while at the University of Buffalo. In college in 1988, he fell off a roof and broke his back, but recovered and started playing wheelchair basketball and road racing.
In 1993, he called up the U.S. Adaptive Cross Country Ski Team coach and started learning nordic. A year later, Balk competed at the ’94 Winter Paralympics and went on to win a bronze medal in the 10 k at the 1998 Games. At the 2000 World Championships, he won gold in the 15 k, and won silver at the 2002 Paralympics in Salt Lake.
There, he recalled one of the most memorable moments of his athletic career. The first leg on the three-man relay, Balk had battled through wet and snowy conditions on his sit ski to hand off in first place. With Willie Stewart and Steve Cook, the team ultimately finished second for the first relay medal in U.S. nordic skiing history.
Balk remembered Stewart making his usual quirky predictions in the wax room before the race.
“He’s always got some theories on who’s going to win,” Balk said. “Willy was like, ‘I think we’re going to win.’ ”
When asked why he thought that, Stewart replied: “ ‘It’s miserable out there. We suffer the best.’ ”
Coming into the last straightaway before the finish, Cook as the final leg trailed the Russian leader by about five feet.
“If the race was 100 meters longer we would’ve won,” Balk said. “We had a great performance as a team and it felt great to be a part of that.”
Balk also competed as a pentathlete in three Paralympic Summer Games, bringing his Paralympic-medal total to six. He retired from nordic in 2009 and became the IPC chairperson of athletes.
A former venture-capital investor and manager for The Boeing Company, Balk described himself as “gainfully unemployed” with a small farm and three active children, Robert, Jack and Bede, to look after in Moravia.
In his free time, Balk said he enjoys hunting as a member of The Physically Challenged Bowhunters of America “just because I don’t have enough things to do.” He also liked getting into new sports with his kids.
“Young athletes should be motivated to try different stuff and just get involved with sports and try new things,” he said.
Personally, Balk can’t get enough of athletic activities. Since ParaCanoe was added to the World Championships last summer, he decided to try it. With bobsled and skeleton looking like they’ll be introduced to the Paralympic program as well, he already tried skeleton in Lake Placid, N.Y., last winter. He would get more instruction at a sliding camp in January.
“I like to play,” Balk said. “I hate spectating. Watching people play is absolutely tedious for me. … I never, ever, ever, would sit in front of a TV by myself and watch a pro sports team — bores me to tears. I would watch the Olympics by myself because it’s so different. I’ll play any sport.”
Alex Kochon (email@example.com) is the former managing editor at FasterSkier. She spent seven years with FS from 2011-2018, and has been writing, editing, and skiing ever since. She's making a cameo in 2020.