Dukat retires from U.S. Disabled Team | VailDaily.com

Dukat retires from U.S. Disabled Team

Ian Cropp
Vail CO, Colorado

Published: AP file photo

When an athlete retires, it’s easy to count up victories and top finishes.

But U.S. Disabled Ski Team member Sandy Dukat’s legacy will be far more than Paralympic and World Championships medals.

“She’s done so much over her career to better the sport,” said Ray Watkins, the U.S. Disabled Team head coach. “She’s been a mentor and a first-class role model for the sport and the athletes on the team.”

Dukat, 35, the standup skier from Vail who is a three-time bronze medalist at the Paralympics, recently decided to retire, ending a 7-year career with the U.S. Disabled Team.

“I’m leaving on such a high,” Dukat said Friday afternoon. “It’s an irreplaceable feeling. I don’t think I’ll ever relive such an experience.”

Dukat’s teammate and fellow Vail racer Ralph Green knows how much her presence will be missed.

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“My goodness,” Green said, pausing for a moment. “Sandy is a big sister to the team. She’s a trooper ” she works hard. She probably had the best work ethic out of anyone on the team.”

“When she sent out the e-mail, it was sad,” Green said, referring to her retirement notification. “You’ve got to respect people who want to take on different walks of life, but it’s sad. We chatted after all the races. We had a brother-sister relationship. She’ll definitely be missed. Her retirement is a loss to the whole skiing community, not just the disabled team.”

After the 2006 Torino Paralympic Games, where Dukat earned a bronze in slalom, she said those Paralympics would be her last. Dukat won two bronze medals in the 2002 Salt Lake games and has compiled many top finishes, including ” most recently ” second place at the World Cup slalom in Aspen.

“I’ve known since the 2006 Torino games that in my heart it was the right time to stop,” Dukat said of her skiing career. “I’m glad I finished up the 2007 season.

“It was a combination of being mentally and physically tired. It’s not safe to race under that mentality.”

And Dukat also got a taste of some less intense skiing, which may have helped the decision.

“I spent a lot of last season just playing and was having more fun out of the gates,” she said.

Dukat, who was a member of the U.S. Disabled Swimming Team, decided to try skiing after the 1998 World Swimming Championships at 25.

“I would have never expected in 10 years that I would go from just learning to ski to winning top races,” Dukat said. “I’ve been really lucky to have athleticism in my family ” I was really blessed with it.”

In the 10 years she skied, Dukat, who was born without a right femur, felt some of the physical wear that she hopes will be lessening now that she’s retired.

“I always say that this one leg has done all the work for 35 years, so it’s actually 70 years old,” Dukat said, referring to the myriad of sports and activities she does. “I have a lot more goals on the horizon. I want to be able to do those (activities) for the next 30 years.”

During her tenure as one of the premier U.S. Disabled Team skiers, Dukat enjoyed all of the opportunities that came along with it, like promoting disabled sports through various speaking engagements.

“I think it’s going to tie into a more permanent position,” Dukat said. “I’m doing a lot of work for The Hartford (Insurance Company) ” they’ve been a great

supporter.”

Dukat fostered relationships with her sponsors and saw support for the team grow immensely.

“On some levels, it’s really tough to leave at this time because there’s so much support,” Dukat said. “If I can be part of that movement, and the next athlete gets that support, that’s so great.”

And just because Dukat no longer is skiing with the U.S. Disabled Team doesn’t mean her sponsors aren’t interested.

“Right now I have a lot of support saying, ‘Come this way if you are looking for a job,'” Dukat said.

Watkins would like Dukat to follow in his footsteps eventually.

“She’s a very passionate and motivated person. I just hope that she decides to become a coach someday,” he said. “She would be a phenomenal coach.”

During her seven years on the team, Dukat left an indelible mark on Watkins.

“She’s had a phenomenal ski career, but more importantly is her impact as a role model and great person,” Watkins said. “In sports today, athletes aren’t about being super in every aspect of their life. (Sandy) is one of those people where she excels at everything but in a really nice way.

“That’s more what I remember about her ” being a great person and the things she brought to the younger teammates and even some of the older teammates. I’ve been with the team for a long time, and she has always been and will always be one of my favorite athletes,” Watkins said.

Green, who is another U.S. Disabled Team member with national speaking engagements, thought Dukat was a great spokeswoman for the sport.

“She had the ability to bring people into her world and let people know what it is to be disabled,” Green said.

Dukat said she is thankful for all the help she received, especially when she first started training in Vail.

“I look at all the people who supported me when I was training and the people who gave me equipment, and I can’t wait to give everything away,” she said.

Green knows she’ll do it, too.

“She’s the type of person who will give up her old racing suits,” he said. “She and I would ski with the Wounded Warriors. Sometimes if that meant sacrificing a (U.S. Team) camp to ski with Iraq or Afghanistan veterans, she’d do that. She knows how much of an impact she’ll have on their lives.”

Retirement will be a break from competitive skiing for Dukat, but she admitted it will be impossible for her to slow down.

“I think I stopped for two weeks and absolutely went crazy,” Dukat said. “(After that) I was training and riding every day.”

Dukat certainly won’t stop her efforts to help others. This fall, Dukat and three others plan on climbing Africa’s Mount Kilimanjaro through a project called Disabilities Without Boundaries to promote awareness for female athletes with physical disabilities. Dukat and the three others hope to raise enough money to pay for two female athletes to train with the national team for a year.

“We’ve been lucky that the U.S. Paralympic Team has been able to step up and match those two for four (athletes),” Dukat said.

To prepare for the journey, Dukat hopes to climb a few 14,000-foot mountains as well as her usual training.

“I’ve been doing the combination of hiking and trekking, and I started rock climbing, and I really enjoy that,” Dukat said.

On Sunday, Dukat will be in New York City for a triathlon.

“If someone challenges me, you can count that I’ll be there,” Dukat said, explaining that the man who makes her prosthetic leg asked her to do the triathlon.

“I still want to have those challenges in front of me. At the competitive level, I know my attitude and get so caught up in the training. I want to reduce that mentality, and I want to do things for fun.”

Dukat plans on staying in Vail and enjoying winter as any local resident would.

“I hope to hit as many powder days as possible,” Dukat said.

While she can’t guarantee it’ll be easy stepping away from the team, Dukat said she knows she can lean on good friends like Green when she needs to. And just like when she was skiing, Dukat will be there to support her team.

“I can’t wait to be in the stands with a flag and horn blowing,” Dukat said.