Veronica of Tarrytown, NY, thought her skiing days were over after her MS diagnosis in 2004. But boy was she wrong. Six years later, at the age of 58, Veronica was inspired to take back her winters and try adaptive skiing. She hasn’t looked back since.
I am a 62 year old woman living officially with MS since Sept 2004. As a younger adult and before my diagnosis, I had enjoyed cross country skiing, and about 15 years ago I was learning downhill. I tagged along with my double black diamond friend to Durango, CO, and while she tore up the slopes, I was in ski school every day, and felt I was really learning how to ski. (Purgatory Ski Resort was like “Heaven” to me!) However, each afternoon, I was aware of increasing difficulty in maintaining an edge on my right ski, and increased fatigue then in walking. The following year we took on Breckenridge and again I took daily lessons. The difficulty in controlling my right ski continued, but now increased to full days of difficulties after the second day of lessons. And I saw that it was getting dangerous for me to ski as I was routinely taking some pretty nasty falls and not understanding why. My diagnosis several years later and after stopping skiing completely answered the questions about why this was happening, and until four years ago, I thought my skiing was history.
Luckily, after watching a PBS special on Yellowstone in winter and remembering how much I loved being out in the snow for fun, I decided to research adaptive skiing and found an adaptive ski program run out of Catamount in the Berkshires, about 80 miles from my home. This was actually where I last skied in 2001, and the stomping ground for my double black diamond friend. So I booked my first lesson in January of 2009. I was sure that I needed a sit ski, and actually argued (well, disagreed!) with the lead instructor, Pete, when he said I could ski standing with outriggers. I was sure he didn’t know WHAT he was talking about. Thank God I decided to trust him after our 15 minute squabble, but boy was I terrified. My first lesson consisted of doing the bunny slope twice, and each time it took probably half an hour for me to get down it as I was so very tentative about moving! But when I got to the bottom the first time, I just cried with happiness at moving like this while standing. This one lesson was the extent of my 2009 ski season.
In 2010 I was able to come up for three lessons. I gained some confidence, my instructors introduced me to the chair lifts, and I did some very tentative runs on the greens. Again, I was terrified, but also so delighted to be moving while STANDING at such a speed … at times near out of control speed, but so exhilarating.
My 2011 lessons started with me waking up on day one racked with awful fear. I drove to the mountain that morning honestly planning on telling the instructors that I wasn’t going to ski that day. I was being eaten up with fear that I twisted into “I don’t even want to do this… why am I doing this… what do I have to prove….” So I left my friend’s house and drove up her road feeling very resolved in my decision.
Then I turned south onto Rte 23, where Catamount is located, and as I drove, I suddenly was aware that there was a… SMILE on my face! What??? I didn’t even realize it was happening, but there it was, just plastered on my face. Did it cancel out the fear? Heck no, but the fear was now manageable, and suitable for my first time out for the season. And I knew that I wanted to ski, I knew that I was doing this because it gives me an incredible rush, and gives me back a feeling of control of my life that MS sometimes robs from me. So the over and over down the learning area slope was perfect for the day and none of my instructors (all 4 of them) made me feel that I was short changing myself in doing so. On the contrary, they encouraged this approach to help me calm down and refresh my skills.
For lesson two, we decided I would ski some runs that demanded us using a lift that has an uphill approach. One of my instructors had the very brilliant idea to use one of the sit skis to get me over to the lift. This stretch has always felt challenging to the point of defeating to me. Walking is no longer very enjoyable for me, and in skis and outriggers and going uphill, I use up stamina and energy before even getting to the lift. The sit ski ride totally prevented this, and I finally got to try out that sit ski that I was sure I needed the very first time I took a lesson. As I was pushed over there I laughed, felt like I should do the Queenly Wave! But boy, this was perfect. No lost energy to start off the day. Those runs were lots of fun--yes, some fear--but when it cropped up I just put my faith in what my instructor would tell me to do, and it always worked out! One of my other instructors amazingly videoed much of these runs (skiing backwards!) so I have a wonderful souvenir of the day, which also has been a good training tool for me to go back and watch. Another instructor showed me on the snow where I caught an edge, and all three instructors made me feel like I was being well taken care of. They had my back, for sure! And our strategy of just doing this same run over and over until I felt I had it memorized certainly boosted my confidence, and pushed the fear off the center stage of my brain.
During one of my subsequent lessons a few weeks later, we again took the approach of my skiing the same run over and over to beat away the willies. Well, mission accomplished. This was the most fun. We must have done that run eight times. Each time, I felt confident, loose, and I was smiling the entire time, especially when the 30 mile-an-hour winds whipped up the mountain and caused a few seconds of a white out as we skied through it. A blast in more ways than one! Just skiing with friends--and I felt good--real good. (Very dramatic, but the thought that went through my head on one of these runs was “I’m home… I’m back.”)
For the rest of last season, my instructors worked with me to fine tune my ability to get off the lift without taking down one or two of them! (Yes, this happened!) We worked on what I needed from them as far as physical support, and we now had our routine set: When dismounting, no one touches me on my left side (the stronger side) and the instructor on my right just gives me a little boost and light support on my right arm.
I had some very technical lessons with one of their master instructors to help me clean up my technique with the riggers, and I had my double black diamond friend join us for a few runs so she could learn where I needed assistance as I wanted to be able to just ski with her without one of my “handlers.” Again I cried with happiness over this.
My final day at Catamount was with my two favorite instructors, Mike and Sean, who I have now dubbed the “FunMeisters.” And we did have fun! We did several different runs over and over and again, that feeling of “I’m back” came to me several times that morning--when I was skiing down the slope, or just riding the lift, watching the snow and talking nonsense with Sean and Mike instead of obsessing over getting off the lift, or the “What if..?” questions that used to fill my head.
I ended this past season on St. Patrick’s Day by participating in STRIDE’s “Great Race” held at Jiminy Peak in Massachusetts. This is a Diana Golden Mills Cup Level I Adaptive Race and a competitive event for their disabled ski racers from across the Northeast. We get to ski a giant slalom course set on the beginner terrain. It was a beautiful day, with a fresh blanket of snow from the night before, making it the best snow of the season for sure. I had a fun run from the top down to the starting gate, and then waited in a line that looked like the climbers waiting to make the final ascent of Mt. Everest. When I got to the starting gate, I saw that Pete--my first instructor from 2009, the one I bickered with--was the gate keeper and would be giving me my flag to start the course. We just looked at each other, and grinning ear to ear, I told him “You know, this is your entire fault!” He laughed, and said “Yup, that’s right, IT IS!” And he started the clock, waved the flag, and I was off… didn’t miss a gate, and won my category. Oh, yeah, well, I was the ONLY 4-track senior woman, but let’s not dwell on that.
And this year, I am happily skiing with my own skis, the first pair I have ever owned. And on my first session with my adaptive ski instructors/buddies, they surprised me by all chipping in and buying me MY OWN riggers! Can you imagine? "You're now independent, Darlin'" was Sean's comments. And the CEO emailed me to say "you're free." They all want me to be able to ski independent of the lessons there, and with these, I can.
I am just beaming. I hate MS, but ya know, I love my life! I’ve gotten back my winter, have a renewed sense of joy in movement, and am satisfied right down to my soul. Wahoo!