Armed forces para-skiers compete in Grand County
For Sky-Hi News
Last week, 50 para-alpine, snowboard and Nordic skiers from the UK’s Armed Forces Para Snowsport Team came to Snow Mountain Ranch (SMR) to log K’s at SMR’s Nordic center and tear down slopes at Winter Park Resort in their various disciplines under the brilliant spring sun. Some are currently serving the Royal Air Force, British Army or Royal Navy; others are veterans. They vary in age, ability and experience, but are unified by a common goal to pioneer pathways into snowsports. They are not your average snow enthusiasts, nor have they come to Grand County on vacation. Instead, they’re all para-athletes, including six who competed in the Paralympics in Beijing.
All athletes have been medically discharged from military service following life-changing injuries. Some of their disabilities came during combat or in wider service. And all now express themselves through the medium of sliding on snow. Instead of focusing on their disability, however, every one will tell you that when they ski or snowboard, they are celebrating their ability and the freedom of the environment.
An officer in the British Army and British Biathlon CEO Elizabeth Winfield founded the British para Nordic team initially to get veterans on skis. Within 18 months, Winfield took the first British Para Nordic Team to the Paralympics. She also started a development program with athlete Jonny Huntington, who joined her on the Paralympic Inspiration Program and competed recently in Grand County. Winfield is joined by coaches with a depth of experience that help every athlete reach his or her dream.
Before COVID-19 hit, the team made several trips a year to ski resorts around the globe, but Snow Mountain Ranch is the first place they’ve visited post The Great Coop-Up of 2020-21. SMR is the only place they have found that lets them access all venues from one place. The athletes love the regenerative quality of snowsports and the freedom they find in flying downhill — or overland — on snow. SMR is the perfect place, they say, because the Nordic athletes can ski on endless tracks to their hearts’ desire, and the Alpine and snowboard athletes can drop vertical with the National Sports Center for the Disabled at Winter Park.
NSCD coach Mark Birdseye works with elite para athletes at SMR and initially hosted a group of the UK athletes and coaches over Thanksgiving in 2015-16. That season, a UK sit-skier named Scott Meenagh contacted him about a visit, and Birdseye coached him individually. Meenagh has since skied to top-10 finishes in the past two Paralympics.
Six athletes have just returned from competing in the Beijing Paralympics, including three alpine sit-skiers, two Nordic skiers and one snowboarder. They inspire those who have just hit the tracks and slopes for the first time. All athletes, no matter what level, were continuing to push their own boundaries and demonstrate what is possible when the right mindset is matched with good coaches. The all-volunteer coaches drive the athletes to reach personal goals while nurturing talent and overcoming challenges. The entire team has shared military foundations, and the camaraderie was amazing to see during their stay at SMR.
Winfield’s goal is to grow the SMR event and increase participation of veterans from across the USA, Canada and Europe.
“We have proved the concept of the event in this incredible venue and can’t wait to get back and start planning for next year,” she said. “Sport unites us and builds friendships. Together, we can demonstrate a life without limits. The work conducted by the Armed Forces Para Snowsport Team has a higher purpose. It helps us access our best selves no matter the circumstances that have sought to disable us before our first experiences on snow.”
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