Sarah Will consults with Barbie on new Para Alpine doll
Longtime local and U.S. Paralympic Alpine skier played integral role in making new toy ‘perfect’
While longtime local Sarah Will remains the most decorated athlete in U.S Paralympic Alpine skiing, much has changed since she last was on the podium. And as she has transitioned from an Olympic athlete to an advocate and accessibility consultant, she’s had an opportunity to institute change and increase representation and accessibility for individuals with disabilities.
Through this, two years ago, Will was approached by Mattel with the opportunity to consult on the creation of a Para Alpine Barbie doll.
“I cried,” Will said of he initial reaction to the call. “I did, because I was very much a tomboy growing up and there were not a lot of dolls at that time that I could relate to.”
Lisa McKnight, the senior vice president and global head of Barbie and dolls portfolio at Mattel Inc., wrote in an email that working with real Paralympic Alpine skiers on the doll was essential to “ensure our representation was as authentic as possible.”
“We fully acknowledge we are not the experts, so by teaming up with Paralympic Gold Medalists during the design process, we can be confident that more kids will see themselves represented in this doll,” McKnight wrote. “Over the years, we’ve worked with many experts to weigh in on new dolls, especially as we have intentionally focused on expanding diversity and inclusion in the line – the input from these experts has been invaluable.”
For Will, getting the equipment absolutely perfect was the most important part of the doll. When Mattel called, company officials also told her she could bring on a team member and she selected Kevin Bramble — who in addition to being a Paralympic ski racer himself is a monoskier designer and builder and designed Will’s own monoski.
“I was incredibly impressed with the detail that Mattel puts into the doll and the equipment that they’re using,” Will said. “It was very important to me that we get the adaptive equipment right; they actually took Kevin’s CAD design, shrunk it down and made it exact. It was really incredible.”
It was important to get it right because the equipment is a vital part of the sport, and, Will said, has significantly improved since she began using a monoski in 1989.
“In the early days, we just had to ride everything out, we just had to tough it out — it was very hard to stick a line when you were bouncing through a turn. There were a lot of models, but at the time, a lot of people were just coming up with whatever they could ride, in their own garages,” Will said, adding that the change came with Jim Martinson’s innovation to the equipment.
“After that, everybody started making them better and better, and made them able to withstand higher speeds. And with the higher speeds, you needed better skiers, so the sport really started to progress in a way that you’re reaching speeds of 65 miles an hour, on one ski,” she said. “That a monoskier or an amputee skier, a blind skier, has the ability to be the best skier on the mountain, that really can do something for your confidence, especially when you can’t find that kind of freedom in other areas of your life.”
The other component that was important to Will on the doll was making sure she was in the right position for a Paralympic Barbie, specifically that she was in a “non-aggressive stance.” One unique benefit of making the Barbie so accurate to the sport, Will added, is that it can be used as a model to help adaptive skiers train.
“It was nice to have that opportunity that because what Barbie is putting out there can be shown to an adaptive skier as a great model of how to get in a right position,” Will said. “We’ve never had a model before, we were always using stick figures on white boards. To actually have a doll that you can say, ‘This is what leaning in looks like, this is what overcompensating looks like,’ is perfect.”
The ability for the Barbie to move like this, she added was enabled by the changes that Mattel has made to create dolls that are more active and flexible — one of many changes the brand has made since its inception in 1959.
“They have really changed who Barbie is completely,” Will said. “Through this process, just learning about the history of Barbie and where she is now, I’m just so proud of the company for their sense of inclusion and can-do spirit.”
The Para Alpine Barbie launched earlier this year and is not only not the brand’s first Para doll, but it is part of a new movement of dolls designed to represent a multitude of not only body types, abilities and skin tones, but career types, sports and more.
“Barbie believes in the power of representation, and we know that children’s early experiences shape what they imagine to be possible. It’s important for them to see themselves reflected in product and content and to be exposed to different skin tones, hair types, and abilities,” McKnight said. “We are committed to continuing to better reflect the world kids see today and know there is power in kids finding a doll that resonates with them.”
Will said that having this Para Alpine doll can help highlight all the positive aspects of being different and shows kids that they can be anything they want.
“Differences should be celebrated,” Will said, adding that she hopes it gives children with disabilities more confidence and a model for all that is possible.
After spending two years working with the brand and building the Barbie, Will is most proud that the Barbie turned out perfect, she said.
“She really is, they got her positioning right, they got her equipment right — I really admire the fact that they worked with people that know their sport and that are leaders in the sport,” she said.
Athlete to advocate
Will sees a lot of parallels between her own path to advocacy and what Barbie has come to stand for.
Will’s own path to advocacy first came in 2001 when she participated in a torch carry celebrating the 10th anniversary of the American’s With Disabilities Act. At the time she was learning, and taking seriously, the responsibility that came with not only with her medals, but with representing her team and her country. But when someone at the torch carry asked her what she was doing for the cause, she had a moment of reckoning.
“I had nothing,” Will said. “I realized in that moment that I was in a position to do more for people outside of sports, and it wasn’t a position that I was comfortable with.”
The moment, she said, pushed her on a path toward advocacy. One of her first moments of advocacy was on the Bridge Street project in Vail where she was instrumental in making the cobblestones smooth along the center of the street,
“For all the opposition that I got on that and how uncomfortable I was with facing so many people who were in opposition to what I was saying, I remembered that torch carry and those people who made my life easier. It was my responsibility to do that for our town,” Will said. “That’s Barbie, she stands up for what’s right.”
While Will still does a lot of advocacy work — her current project is making sure that lift operators receive safety training for adaptive skiers, because “Barbie still wants to ski,” she said — she has also transitioned into a role doing universal access consulting.
In speaking about standing up for what’s right in this job, Will said, “I’m not going to cave, Barbie wouldn’t cave — she gives me confidence in my own abilities.”
Reporter Ali Longwell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.