Editor’s note: During this Winter Olympic year and leading up to the 2015 FIS Alpine World Championship season, this weekly series will tell Colorado’s rich ski racing history and heritage through stories about its ski heroes and legends.
As an elite disabled mono-skier and 12-time gold medalist at four straight Paralympic Winter Games from 1992 to 2002, Sarah Will, of Edwards, didn’t know until recently that the “para” prefix referred to “parallel” to the Winter Olympics. She assumed it referred to paraplegia.
“I think the words U.S. Paralympics, the name brand is getting stronger, which is good because Paralympics is really supposed to mean parallel to the Olympics,” Will said. “It’s got nothing to do with paraplegic. It means parallel to the Olympics, and yet we’re just starting to see some Paralympic commercials and sponsors that are connected with the Olympic movement.”
Will will be in Hartford, Conn., during the Sochi 2014 Paralympic Winter Games, which run March 7-16. She’ll be providing remote, tape-delayed commentary for the television broadcast, while her longtime Vail Mono Ski Camp partner and fellow Paralympian Chris Waddell provides on-the-ground coverage from Sochi, which hosts the Winter Olympics Feb. 7-23.
Will, at first a reluctant advocate for disabled rights after her retirement from competition in 2002, is concerned about access at the Sochi Games in Russia’s Caucasus Mountains near the Black Sea.
“I’m worried about it, and I’m kind of glad I’m going to be able to do my commentating for the Paralympics from the Universal Studios in Hartford, Conn.,” Will said. “It will be a day delay and Chris will be there doing the live stuff. I’m OK with that. I’ve seen Russian TV accessibility. I don’t need to test that out.”
A recent representative on the 22-member Denver Olympic Bid Exploratory Committee, Will is now forever focused on issues of access.
“Keep in mind that when we get the Olympics, we get the Paralympics, and that’s why I was trying to make such a big push when (Vail) did this billion-dollar renovation, because if you get one, you get the other and really all you need is a wider bathroom door,” said Will, who has worked for years to make accessibility a key part of Vail’s ongoing base-village renovation.
She got town officials to consider certain types of wheelchair-friendly cobblestones during streetscape renovations, and she successfully pushed for a smooth strip down the middle of Vail Village’s streets for both wheelchairs and strollers.
“Revenue is part of our sport, and we need to be smart and we need to look at this not only as something that’s good for our economy, but also as something that’s educational for our communities and for our children,” said Will, who for several years ran an accessibility website for disabled guests planning trips to the Vail Valley.
The United States Olympic Committee in 2012 decided not to submit a bid for the 2022 Winter Olympics (2018 has already been awarded to South Korea) because the timing was too tight, but a 2026 Colorado bid is still on the table, and Will wants to make sure the Paralympics are also front of mind in that process.
That wasn’t always the case for Will, who broke her back in a skiing accident at Aspen Highlands in 1988. But her Paralympic fame gave her a platform to speak out, and now she takes every chance she gets to advocate for greater accessibility for athletes, veterans and everyday citizens.
Will literally saw it all in terms of access issues during her 10-year, 13-medal Paralympic run that spanned Albertville, France in 1992, Lillehammer, Norway in ’94, Nagano, Japan in ’98 and ended at Salt Lake City, Utah in ’02 with four golds in all four alpine mono-ski disciplines.
And she also saw the coming of age of the Paralympic movement and the U.S. Disabled Ski Team. Her greatest memory from her Paralympic years was racing for her country.
“When you realize that you are one small part of representing your country as part of a team, there’s an immense sense of responsibility,” said Will, 48, who was inducted into the 2004 Colorado Ski & Snowboard Museum Hall of Fame in 2004. “There was just a tremendous amount of pride in being part of the U.S. Ski Team.”
Asked to wear her TV commentator hat, Will points to two top athletes fans should watch for at the 2014 Paralympic Winter Games — both dual summer-winter standouts who now live in Colorado and may someday be Hall of Fame candidates.
“Alana Nichols. She’s done everything that the Colorado Ski Hall of Fame encompasses: Hard work, true grit and just coming off a huge (shoulder) injury and already she’s back on the podium,” Will said of the Denver resident who won gold in wheelchair basketball at the 2008 Beijing Paralympic Summer Games and two golds in alpine skiing at the 2010 Vancouver Paralympic Winter Games. “That’s just someone I know of who’s so close to my heart because she’s the top dog in what I was in the sport (mono skiing).”
“And also, Allison Jones,” Will said of the Middle Park (Granby) and University of Denver graduate who’s won multiple Summer Games medals in paracycling and a Winter Games gold in slalom skiing. “She’s a dual summer-winter athlete as well. It’s kind of like Shaun White or Shaun Palmer. Some people just have a natural ability that they’re just going to gravitate toward the sports that they’re good at, and that’s multi-season.”
David O. Williams wrote this story for the Colorado Ski & Snowboard Museum. The museum is located on the third level of the Vail Village parking structure adjacent to Vail Village Covered Bridge. It is open daily from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. For more information, call 970-476-1876 or go to www.skimuseum.net.