A few weeks back, I had my chakras totally realigned around the very concept of “disability”. In our society, the word carries at times a stigma; at very least, it tempts us to use euphemisms like “differently able”. At its worst, the very word sets limits. My personal realignment came in the most pleasant, and exhausting, of ways. I spent the day skiing with my friend Chris Devlin-Young (pictured below).
I’ve known Chris for several years. We met through Shakespeare in the Valley (the Waterville Valley Foundation is a proud supporter of SITV programs), where Chris is the house manager and driving force behind the theater company’s sets each season. At first I knew Chris as the quiet but friendly guy in the wheelchair who manned the ticket booth each evening. Later, as I got more involved in the theater, I spent pleasant days with him working on set construction, or striking the sets at the end of the season. We built a friendship based on him being the brains and me being the legs of the operation — though Chris actually gets around very well on his crutches. It was during one of these set-construction days that I learned about the “real” Chris.
Chris the quiet-but-friendly house manager, Chris the guy in the wheelchair, is also Chris the world-champion Paralympic downhill skier. He is Chris the six-time Olympian. And he is Chris, the survivor of a Coast Guard plane crash in the early 1980s that changed the course of his life irrevocably. In the months after his crash, Chris spent a lot of time in a dark place. Fortunately, a friend suggested he try skiing as part of his rehabilitation. He tried it. He was hooked.
In the three decades since, Chris has become one of the top Paralympic skiers in the world. He expects to be proudly representing the United States once again at Sochi Paralympic Games in March. If Chris takes just one more medal, he will tie another New Hampshire Olympian’s record — but Bode Miller isn’t about to let Chris catch up without a fight. The two have a friendly rivalry, and the Sochi Games will be a great test.
But back to my chakra-realignment, as the lessons came fast and furious.
Lesson #1: Olympic Caliber Equipment
The first was getting to know Chris’ specialized racing equipment. Chris’ monoski is to the teaching skis WVAS uses as a Formula One race car is to your average Toyota Camry. His custom-built machine is a weapons-grade alloy frame that Chris co-designed with the manufacturer, incorporating a gas strut shock absorber and carefully calculated geometry. On the bottom, a metallic “foot” clicks into a specially modified, 30-DIN racing binding on his ski — the day I skied with him, he was on a 165cm race-stock slalom ski. The top of the machine attaches to his “bucket” — a custom-molded black plastic seat with a tight fairing that clamps down over Chris’ legs. The fairing is dimpled like a golf ball (I asked him if he thought it made a difference; he smiled and said his competition has been pretty sure it has for the last couple seasons). Chris clamps into his machine just about like you and I buckle into our ski-boots — and he turns his ski very much like you and I turn ours, though in his case the driving force comes from his incredibly strong torso. Chris skis with outriggers, but they are primarily for balance and turn initiation — just like you and I use our poles.
Lesson #2: Disability doesn’t play into it
Once he was clamped into his machine, Chris took off from the landing by the main entrance to the lodge, pushing himself backwards up the hill with his outriggers, faster than I could walk carrying my skis. I offered — needlessly — to give him a boost but he laughed and said it was a good warmup. Then he proceeded to beat me to the chair.
Working through the lift line, I wasn’t sure if I would need to do anything when it came time to board. Once again, “disability” never played into it. We skied to the loading point, Chris bumped his weight off the shock in one precisely-timed press, and we were off up the mountain.
Lesson #3: This guy is seriously fast
Sliding off at the top, we decided to take our first run down Upper Bobby’s. As the “local” and regular Waterville skier, I figured I should take the lead at first. Now, you should know this about me: I ski fairly fast. It’s not pretty, but I get down the hill. I love going fast, and I am not used to skiing with people who are a lot faster than me, because most people have more common sense than I do. Imagine my surprise, then, when I flared out to the left at the bottom of Upper Bobby’s, and had nearly come to a quick stop, when I looked over my shoulder to see Chris about ten feet away and charging at full speed. Fortunately, he is possessed of the amazing reflexes of a professional athlete and managed to miss me by precious inches. As he laughed and said, “No blood, no foul”.
Now that we’d established who the lead dog was, we settled into a pattern of fast fall-line turns and me chasing Chris, trying to keep him in sight. He’s used to long days of training, so just hanging out and free-skiing with friends was a treat, he said… but Chris’ “just hanging out” looks a lot like other people’s personal best. We carved up Whitecaps. We shot the Chute. We roared down Gema. Everything he did, the “disabled” guy made look easy. He was a delight to watch — rapid-fire, perfectly carved turns, edge to edge so quickly that your eyes could barely keep up and your mind began to boggle.
Lesson #4: Olympic-class generosity
After a few fast runs, we made our way over to Valley Run to join a Waterville Valley Adaptive Sports lesson. We were lucky enough to ski with Griffin, who was delighted to meet Chris and get his autograph, then proceeded to lead us and his instructors down Valley Run in a long, sinuous parade, practicing his hockey stops and smiling broadly at his new friend. Griffin’s lead instructor confided that Griffin had been cold and tired and ready go to in – but when Chris joined him, he found a burst of energy. Halfway down Valley Run, Chris asked me if Griffin was always so cheerful. I had to admit I’d never seen him without a smile on his freckled face – but I had also never seen him so happy and proud. He was skiing with a world champion that he would see on TV in few weeks. I also realized to myself that Griffin and Chris share a common trait: disability isn’t a factor for either of them.
Later, over lunch, Chris joined the Adaptive table in the base lodge and spent some time with Jill. Jill suffered a spinal injury while skiing a few years ago, and has been confined to a wheelchair since. She is determined to get back to an active life, and has come to Waterville Valley for two years running. On this day, she had graduated to a higher-performance HOK bi-ski, and she was at once tired and encouraged that she was making progress. Jill and Chris paired off for a quiet conversation about training and conditioning and, I suspect, the freedom that skiing brings them both.
Lesson #5: I can’t keep up with Olympic athletes
I helped Chris get his gear to his van and we shook hands and I wished him well. In a couple short months, he would log another 20,000 miles in the air, and compete in multiple world-class events during the run-up to Sochi. He was off-handed about it all, but I couldn’t help feel at once humbled and proud that I had gotten to ski with someone so literally heroic.
He drove off down the hill, and I limped back into the building. I knew where every muscle in my body was, as they were all reporting in loudly. Turns out that middle-aged recreational skiers aren’t necessary sufficiently in condition to run at wide-open-throttle in pursuit of world-champion athletes all day. No doubt this one shouldn’t have come as any surprise, but… there you go.
Want to support adaptive skiing at Waterville Valley Resort? I hope you’ll consider joining the fun at the first annual Diamonds & Denim Gala at the Waterville Valley Conference Center on Saturday, January 25th. The evening begins with cocktails and a silent auction at 5pm, followed by dinner and a live auction with the inimitable Tom Gross at 7pm.