Give them any challenge |

Give them any challenge

Veronica Whitney

For example, Mary Riddel and George Sansonetis can do one-third leg bends for several minutes, and Nick Catanzarite can easily work a sports cord with so much resistance it would make any person sweat after the first 15 seconds.

These exercises may not seem challenging – but Riddel is missing part of her right leg, Catanzarite is paralyzed from the chest down and Sansonetis has Dystonia, a neuromuscular disease.

“You have to ski the same length courses as able-bodied skiers, so you have to have a lot of strength and endurance,” says Monte Meier, who skis with one leg. Meier, 31, of Park City, lost his other leg in a farming accident at 8 years old.

Meier and eight of the 15 athletes on the U.S. Disabled Ski Team were in Vail last week for “speed training” at Golden Peak. They also participated at the Howard Head Sports Medicine center in strength, balance, and agility exercises that test the skills required for skiing. Physical therapists at the center donated their time to perform the tests, which also are used by local and top professional athletes.

“Overall, the team did better than most athletes that we have tested, even better than many professional athletes,” says Steve Stalzer, physical therapist at the center.

Minor test modifications were made for monoskiers, while no modifications were made for standing skiers.

“They demonstrated great balance, strength, and coordination,” Stalzer says. “The attitude and work ethic the team demonstrated rivals that of any athlete we have worked with.”

Strong bodies, strong minds

Meier, who had never skied before his accident, did what many would not have – he started skiing the following fall. At last year’s Paralympics at Salt Lake he won a silver medal in slalom.

Joe Tomkins, 34, of Juneau, Alaska, started skiing after a automobile accident left him paralyzed from the waist down when he was 19.

“I couldn’t play basketball, baseball or football anymore,” he says, “I’m very competitive and skiing has helped me to stay competitive.”

Catanzarite, 25, of Winter Park is the rookie of the team. Paralyzed in a skiing accident when he was 17, says his parents forced him back into racing.

“I didn’t think about ski racing again. I didn’t think it would be fun,” he says. “I was wrong. It’s at least as much fun, maybe even more. This has given me an opportunity to learn stuff I didn’t learn when I was standing.”

Both Tomkins and Catanzarite ski in a monoski.

There are three divisions for disabled skiers – standing, blind and sitting.

The U.S. Disabled Ski Team has 10 skiers competing in the standing category, five, in the sitting category and no blind skiers. All athletes compete in all disciplines – giant slalom, slalom, super-G and downhill.

“Because of their disabilities, some of these athletes are stronger and have more balance than able-bodied skiers,” says John Cole, who coached at Ski and Snowboard Club Vail for 12 years. “They want to be compared to able-bodied skiers because they feel they are as strong and can do the same things.”

This is Lacey Heward’s second year on the team. The 23-year-old from Salt Lake City decided she would be on the ski team when she watched the 1998 winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan. Heward was just a year old when a weight fell on her spine and crushed it, leaving her paralyzed from the waist down. She started skiing so she could spend time with her family.

“When I heard the Olympics would be held in Salt Lake, I made my mind to get on the team, and I did it,” says Heward, who won bronze medals in giant slalom and super-G at Salt Lake last year. “I’ve always looked up to Sarah (Will).”

Skiing on a monoski, Vail’s Sarah Will, 37, won four gold medals in slalom, giant slalom, super-G and downhill at the Paralympics at Salt Lake.

“I’m glad we’re having this opportunity to do this test,” says Will, a veteran with 12 years on the team. “We can see where we are now, at the beginning of the season and where we’ll be at the end of the season.”

If one would see Mary Riddel ski, it would be hard to tell she’s missing a leg.

Riddel, 22, of Winter Park, was born without part of her right leg. Because her leg is missing under her knee, she can ski with an artificial leg.

“I can make a better turn with my artificial leg,” says Riddel, who has been on the team for 10 years. “I can feel if I’m standing on the balls of my feet because of the pressure on my hip.”

Riddel has won four Olympic medals at the Paralympics in Nagano and at Salt Lake City. She also was the World Cup overall winner in 1998, 1999 and 2000.

Family team

“Sarah, you want me to pick you up?” Joe Tomkins asks Will when she finishes one of the exercises at the Head Center.

When 10 seconds of tough pulls, twists and leg bends are left, athletes encourage each other not to quit.

“The team is like a family,” Will says. “It’s a benefit we get to travel men and women together; we learn to communicate better.”

Athletes in the U.S. Disabled Ski Team travel together to races in the United States and Canada. The World Cup series visits Austria at the end of the month.

“The Vail Valley is helping us to create an affordable training for our athletes,” says Alan Bender, head coach for the U.S. Disabled Ski Team.

“Vail Resorts provides season passes; Ski Club Vail, training space on the hill; the Cascade Resort, inexpensive lodging; and the Head center, these assessments.”

Following the tests, each athlete was given an individualized program to assist with turning identified weaknesses into strengths. They will re-test at the end of the season, when they return to Vail for an annual fund-raising event.

“These athletes have a great sense of team,” Steve Stalzer says. “They have a tremendous attitude.”

Veronica Whitney can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 454, or at

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