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U.S. Disabled Ski Team gets buried in powder

Ryan Slabaugh

On a mountain overlooking Steamboat Springs, U.S. Disabled Ski Team racer Sandy Dukat asked her guide if he knew what snowcat was storing the legs. Several people around me were interested in the answer –myself included –and as the guide found the snowcat with the prosthetics and wheel chairs, we filed out and into the lodge.

It was lunch time.

Dukat, a few of her teammates, members of the Breckenridge Outdoor Education Center (BOEC), some media folks and other disabled skiers took an offer they couldn’t refuse on Tuesday. Steamboat Powder Cats wanted to see if disabled skiers could swing it in the deep powder and gave them the day.

Just last week, northern Colorado received 60 inches of snow. It still covered the mountains around Buffalo Pass and, as we broke for lunch, the adaptive athletes had long since discovered they could handle the snow, even if it was filled with wind-blown berms.

While standup monoskiers like Breckenridge’s Chris Canfield handled the powder with ease (he had done this many, many times), it took sit-skiers like retired U.S. Disabled queen Sarah Will of Vail a moment.

But sure enough, Will was splitting two-foot tree gaps a moment later; by swinging her outriggers into the air above her head, she turned the wide, boxey sit-ski into a thin, wiry frame that kicked snow straight into her face.

“We don’t get to do this too often,” said Canfield, a 43-year-old California native. “Training. It’s always training.”

The few days previous, the team had raced in a pair of slaloms and a super-G in Park City, Utah. After the race, they filled the vans and headed to Steamboat, where the snow was still falling. Even David Rozelle joined the party. Rozelle lost a foot in Iraq last summer when a mine ripped into his vehicle; after securing the area, calling in help and tending to the other wounded, he was politely told to find a medic.

A few months later, Rozelle, an accomplished skier, re-learned to ride on a prosthetic foot (he still uses two skis). Four days after his first try, he raced gates at the the Hartford Ski Spectacular in Breckenridge, thanks to the coaching of Dukat.

Then, they celebrated.

“If you want to see something funny,” Rozelle said, “try watching a bunch of us dancing.”

Run one

Filled with coffee and curiosity, the group of 20 or so piled into the snowcats for our first run of the day. Our powder skis hung on the racks behind the back door and we took our seats. Reggae on the stereo.

After the seats had been filled, sit-skier Scott Meyer and Will were lifted into the aisle. Meyer slid to the front, facing the back; Will was slid in facing him. Their skis were parallel and under them, facing opposite directions.

When we reached the top of In the Buff, a moderately sloped glade, we watched guide Bill Murphy (Murphy, to us) set a line for us to follow. We took off, one or two at a time, carving turns into the snow.

Then Meyer tipped over. Will caught an edge and slid to her side. Dukat lost a ski. Someone hugged a tree.

To the guides, it must have looked like they had practiced the synchronized falling.

The day was off to a wet start. We finished the run and reboarded the cats. BOEC’s Jeff Inuwe cleaned goggles and run No. 2 began with more success.

Rozelle beat everyone down, Will caught air on a roller and whole crew cheered when Meyer snagged another facial. We stayed close, so falls resulted in equal applause and help. The sit-skiers were uprighted, lost skis were reattached and, then, lunch time.

Lunch time

“What snowcat has our legs in it,” Dukat asked. We found the legs, went inside, had hot soup and a gumbo dish, ate a cookie, drank lemonade and hot tea, and, while some traded tips about lotion and health-care tips for amputation spots, the rest of us became invited into their world.

The jokes can be crude, but it’s an upbeat crudeness; more than once, as a disabled skier struggled in the snow, another disabled athlete would call them “snow cripples.”

It made us laugh. At this point, athletes like Will and Dukat have been asked so many times about their disabilities (including one reporter who asked, “Is it tough to be disabled?), that they’ve been desensitized. At the same time, this congregation can start a conversation from “Do you wish your amputation was at a different spot?” to “Do you still have nightmares?”

“I did for about a month,” said Rozelle, who’ll be on the Today Show sometime soon. “But I’m actually dreaming of skiing now. I dreamed of running the other day, which was awesome.”

But the guides shut us up. They reminded everyone of our true purpose that day, which was to find fresh tracks. We threw on our layers and boarded the cat. The operation was getting to be clockwork, except when Canfield left his Allen wrench in the bathroom. He needed it to take that leg off.

The afternoon

We split into two groups, which sped up the process. While the guides were willing to take our skis off our feet, it was too slow. Both groups loaded their own gear; and when we skied, we only stopped at the bottom.

My group snuck in five runs after lunch, and as 3 p.m. loomed and then passed, we convinced the guides for one more run. We all went for it on rock jumps, landing in the mashed potato snow with moderate success. Most of us finished the day covered in powder and the front of Meyer’s rig was filled with a ball of snow the size of a basketball.

We loaded into our final cat ride, and heard another guide thank us. On the stereo, Widespread Panic played “The Road Less Traveled,” which someone duly noted as “perfect.”

We gathered back at Steamboat Powdercats’ headquarters and looked at the pictures. Did I mention Meyer had a face shot? The 38-year-old Will’s grinning like she got candy for being good.

And, before we all returned home, Dukat, Rozelle and team member Csilla Kristof, a 19-year-old bleach-blonde Californian who now lives in Vail, made more plans for dancing this weekend.

Ryan Slabaugh can be reached at (970) 668-3998, ext. 257, or at rslabaugh@summitdaily.com.


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