The wind howling sideways across Sugar Bowl’s alpine slopes in Truckee, Calif., skiers and spectators alike at the U.S. SuperTour Finals hill climb in April grimaced in the cold. The Spring Series skate race was mostly a snow squall, with competitors battling a headwind at times as they pushed toward the top.
Rounding one of the last corners into a blustery abyss, Omar Bermejo smiled for the camera. He might as well have been back in San Diego, Calif., where he was stationed with the U.S. Marine Corps; Bermejo appeared in his own world, immune to his frigid surroundings.
“Being a Marine, you kind of crave those little, like, I-hate-my-life kind of moments,” Bermejo said three days later on April 11. “I don’t know, I liked it.”
Skating was his favorite technique and doing so up a mountain wasn’t awful – even with one arm, the U.S. Paralympics Development Team member explained. A Marine for more than 10 years, Sgt. Bermejo rewarded himself for surviving four deployments in Iraq by buying a motorcycle in 2008. Cruising around that June in San Diego, he hit a patch of dirt on a curve and lost control of the bike, crashed and had his right arm amputated as a result.
Four months later, he started skiing for physical therapy, and it didn’t take long for the U.S. Paralympics Nordic Program to catch wind of his new hobby.
“During my recovery, I had rehab [and the therapists] were like, ‘Hey do you want to try cross-country skiing?’ ” Bermejo, 31, recalled at Spring Series on April 11. “I was like, ‘Yeah, I want to go down some hills.’ And then they were like, ‘All right, go up that hill.’ I was like, ‘Wait a second, you tricked me!’ ”
His voice fluctuated with excitement as he spoke, not long after racing 20 kilometers on the last day of the season. “Actually I started on classic skis and I was like, ‘Oh wow, this is like running. I feel great!’ ”
Bermejo was, and remains, a fiercely competitive athlete. Before his accident, he was a road runner, racing 10 k’s, half marathons, you name it, Bermejo explained on the phone in June. He was just about to leave his hometown of Grand Rapids, Mich., to fly east to live and train with the Maine Winter Sports Center (MWSC) in Caribou, Maine.
Early last season, MWSC head coach Will Sweetser helped Bermejo and Kevin Burton, a U.S. Paralympics visually impaired skier, at the SuperTour in Bozeman, Mont. The relationship continued through U.S. nationals and SuperTour Finals, with Bermejo meeting the team in March for a weeklong training camp in Maine. Ultimately, Sweetser asked Bermejo if he wanted to move there.
“I really jumped at that,” Bermejo said. “I’m a stand-up athlete so I can sort of keep up with the able-bodied guys.”
By stand-up, Bermejo meant his adaptive category, which allows him to ski just like anybody else with just one arm. His able-bodied teammates include Kris Freeman, Sam Tarling and Welly Ramsey of MWSC’s Olympic Development Cross-Country Team (ODT).
“We are really excited to have Omar join us as a member of our ODT,” Sweetser wrote in an email. “While working with him last year as a service tech, he and I hit it off. I think that many of the professional clubs can offer a whole lot of help to most stand up adaptive athletes.”
“Pretty psyched to have Omar join us,” he added. “Our junior group love him and really get pumped to train with him.”
Not long after settling into Maine, Bermejo presented to the MWSC juniors. In September, he traveled to Italy with top skiers like Freeman, Tarling and U.S. Ski Team member Noah Hoffman to train at altitude in the Italian Alps.
“Sometimes I feel as if I don’t belong there since in reality I have only been skiing for only two years,” Bermejo wrote in an email. “But whenever those thoughts come around is when I tell myself that I must push myself a little harder or smarter to get through and succeed at my training.”
Three days after ascending more than 1,000 feet to the top of Sugar Bowl’s Mt. Disney, nearly 8,000 feet above sea level, Bermejo completed the 20 k classic at U.S. Distance Nationals on a borderline-hot, slushy day. About five kilometers in, he broke his pole. With no one around to hand him a replacement, he skied the next several hills without any use of his upper body. In his first Sprint Series, Bermejo wasn’t about to quit.
“I had to basically no pole the whole thing,” Bermejo said after finishing in just over an hour and a half. “Towards the way back, somebody gave me a pole so I’m like, ‘OK,’ … it was the last [race] so I had to make it count.”
That kind of grit is what U.S. Paralympics quickly picked up on. Post-rehab, Bermejo moved to Arizona to be with friends and lift his spirits.
“I was trying to deal with my arm being missing,” he said. “I used to be a strong guy, like great runner, so I wanted to get back to that.”
He discovered U.S. Paralympics coach Rob Rosser was hosting a biathlon clinic at the University of Arizona and decided to check it out.
“I was in the mode that I could do anything,” Bermejo said. “[Rosser] invited me to the Empire State Games in upstate New York and I was like, ‘Wow, this is great. I want to continue doing this.’ ”
Arizona, he soon realized, was not the best place for skiing. Bermejo started shopping around for new places to live and train, and Marc Mast in Sun Valley, Idaho, invited him to check out his Wood River Ability Program. In the summer of 2011, Bermejo moved there permanently.
U.S. Paralympics Development Coach Eileen Carey, formerly of the MWSC, wrote in an email that she first worked with Bermejo at a development camp in February 2012 in Lake Placid, N.Y., where he traveled for the Empire State Games.
“Since that time he has been hooked and has dedicated himself to becoming a Paralympic skier and biathlete,” Carey explained. “He has made huge gains in such a short period, which I would attribute to his professional and driven approach. He is introspective and I think that helps him see the small progressions that he makes and keep perspective on the fact that he is not yet the athlete he will one day become.”
“Being a Marine, you kind of crave those little, like, I-hate-my-life kind of moments, but I don’t know, I liked it.” — Bermejo on the 2013 SuperTour Finals hill climb at Sugar Bowl Resort
Last winter, Bermejo competed at the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) World Cup in Cable, Wis., and skied well enough to earn points. That gave him affirmation and hope. In a year, he wondered if he could make the 2014 Paralympics.
He decided his best shot would be in biathlon. “With my Marine background and the shooting, it’s something that holds near and dear to my heart,” he said.
“Right now on the international level, I’m like a nobody, but I want to get there,” Bermejo added. “They’ll be like, ‘Here comes the American guy; watch out for him.’ Eventually that’s what I want to do, I want to be a force.”
Months after his East-Coast move, Bermejo was already pleased with his progress. Sun Valley was a great start, he explained, but he needed to train with others and follow a specific outline.
“I asked my Paralympic coaches if moving to Maine would be a good idea and they told me it would be great if I was willing to sacrifice my then current social life and my love for the west of the country,” Bermejo wrote in an email. “I must say it was tough and one hell of a move but I have made huge improvements working with all the coaches at MWSC and I believe I am ready to use my newfound skills to work in the upcoming season.”
Along with Carey, U.S. Paralympics Nordic High Performance Director John Farra encourages stand-up athletes to train with an elite club with able-bodied nordic skiers.
“He has made a significant commitment to the sport and it has resulted in impressive improvement for a relative newcomer,” Farra wrote in an email. “We are excited for Omar to integrate into the MWSC program and see how far they can help him progress with his skiing. “
So far, the best thing he’s learned is to “slow down to go fast,” he wrote. “When I first started skiing just freshly out of the Marine Corps my technique was to go as hard and quick as possible and hopefully I would go fast enough, however, after a couple of races I took a beating and I was not going anywhere.”
In Maine, he realized if he relaxed and thought more about smooth skiing and glide, he could suddenly go faster and longer without feeling tired.
Following U.S. nationals in January, U.S. Paralympics will select its national team for the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi, Russia. While Bermejo isn’t a shoe-in for one of the 19 spots, he’s optimistic.
“Omar is one of the athletes who is Sochi ‘Eligible’ and in a good position to be able to qualify for the Team,” Farra wrote, referring to the Paralympic-team criteria. “I would expect he will make the team if he continues to train in a professional way through next winter.”
“Omar has been a great part of our program over the last year or so,” Carey wrote. “He is an A-lister through and through. He is one of those people you meet and hope you will know forever.”
Looking at the strides he’s made since his accident five years ago, Bermejo feels grateful for the opportunities he’s been afforded by the U.S.
“I am proud to have served under our flag in the military and would like to keep serving my country but this time as an inspiration to never quit and never stop dreaming no matter what happens,” he wrote.
“I want people to know that it does not matter how fast I can complete a race, how many people I can beat, what skis or waxes I use, or even how many medals I can accrue in my lifetime.. What matters is achieving happiness.. And I know I have already won at that ever since I started Nordic skiing.”
He has several people to thank for his quick rise within the sport, including Mast, who “was the first person that saw potential in me,” the Hall family in Casper, Wyo., “for opening their doors and allowing me to make my training easier,” and his girlfriend Lindsey Hall “for giving me the inner strength to keep going when the going is tough.”
Alex Kochon (firstname.lastname@example.org) 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.