Dukat brings home bronze
VAIL – Sandy Dukat was thinking of her father as she rocketed down the course in the Paralympic slalom race in Sestriere, Italy, on March 18. While her father had attended a couple of her other Paralympic events, he began suffering from asthma complications, and missed her most exciting race.When he heard that she landed a bronze medal, however, he was on his way to the medals ceremony in no time. “When I went up into the stands after the race, it was a great feeling, but I was pretty bummed my parents weren’t there,” Dukat said. “As soon as I crossed the finish line, though, my brother ran back to the hotel and got my parents. At the medals ceremony, I looked out into the crowd, and there was my dad, wrapped up in a blanket. To see him, with my mom there holding him, was probably the highlight of the whole event.”Dukat began skiing in 1998 after becoming a champion on the U.S. Disabled Swimming Team. The 33-year-old from Ohio was born without a femur and had her right leg amputated at the age of 4. She joined the U.S. Disabled Ski Team in 2000 and moved to Vail three years ago. Having grown up competing against able-bodied athletes in basketball, baseball and high jumping, Dukat has been tearing up World Cup courses on her three track skis for the last five years.Skiing with purpose
This Paralympic bronze medal, Dukat’s last as she’ll retire before the next Games in 2010, didn’t come as easily as the two she landed in the 2002 Games in Salt Lake City. But she said racing with a purpose in mind – in this case, for her father – granted her the extra push that she needed.”I’m usually a good competitor when I’m doing it for a team or a reason,” she said. Because Dukat approached the Paralympics feeling a little worse for wear, she was that much more pleased when she put down what she believed to be her best skiing, finishing sixth in super-G, seventh in giant slalom and eighth in downhill.”I was going into the Games with an injury. I was having trouble with my hip on my left leg. I was nervous,” Dukat said. “I went into the Games with this idea that, whatever happened, I was working my hardest. At every race, I was working with my personal best. For me, that’s a huge accomplishment. The fans were amazing.”Dukat said that, unlike the Torino Olympics, “stands were packed” at the Torino Paralympic events.Is the world still watching?But media coverage and exposure, says Dukat, is the only thing that separates the Olympics from the Paralympics.
“I don’t think there’s any difference in the two events as far as athletic ability,” Dukat said. “Most of us are professional athletes. It’s about how many people know about one versus the other. I wish more people knew we are the second-largest sporting event. People don’t realize how many people come together and do the same sports on the same courses used in the Olympics.”Another challenge for Dukat in the 2006 Games was the change in format of the race categories. In past Paralympic events, stand-up racers were divided into divisions where Dukat raced only against other above-the-knee-amputees. Now there is only one stand-up category for all disabled athletes, save those who are visually impaired. Thus, Dukat had to work that much harder.”I think it’s better,” said Dukat, whose collection of global podiums also includes a World Cup slalom victory in Steamboat Springs last year and two world championship gold medals in 2004. “I think the vibe is better this way because there’s a more intense sense of competition. I had to go out with a bang.”Dukat is toying with the idea of prolonging her retirement until after next season, allowing her to race in another world championship series. As far as skiing in general, Dukat said she sees no end to that.”I can’t imagine not living in the mountains and not having it as part of my life,” she said. “I love skiing, the freedom of skiing. I don’t think about my leg. It’s just me and the mountain.”One is more than enoughDukat said that she often ends up in a position of educating people about disabled skiing. The way people approach her when they see she’s only got one leg gets tiring sometimes.
“There are always days that are good and bad,” she said. “Some days you’re able to handle it. But I’m usually turned off by the people who look at me and my leg and yell out something like, ‘Oh, what happened? Cancer?’ There are times you walk away. But I don’t think anyone means to be harmful or malicious about it.”Dukat guesses that perhaps the stands were fuller at the Paralympic Games than at the Olympics because people are more curious about watching professional disabled athletes.”I think we attract more people who just want to see what we’re about,” Dukat said. “They think the Olympics will be so crazy and busy and this might not be so bad. Then they say, ‘This is so crazy.'”Dukat definitely doesn’t feel that disabled skiers exhibit more skill than able-bodied athletes when they take to the same race courses competing with missing limbs and visual impairments. For Dukat, one-legged skiing is the only kind she’s ever experienced, or mastered, for that matter.”To us, being on one leg doesn’t seem like a big thing,” she said. “From the viewers’ point, I would never say, ‘It’s actually harder on one.’ I’ve never known any different.”Sports Writer Shauna Farnell can be reached at 949-0555, ext.14632, or firstname.lastname@example.org.Vail, Colorado
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