Elite athletes training to achieve highest paralympic level

Mark Birdseye, Sini Pyy and Joy Rondeau after a Nordic ski training day at Snow Mountain Ranch on Friday, Jan. 20. Rondeau is the recipient of the Colorado Sports Hall of Fame’s 2016 Athlete with Disabilities Award.
Kristen Lodge / Sky-Hi News |

Joy Rondeau, a Nordic ski racer from Granby is the recipient of the Colorado Sports Hall of Fame’s 2016 Athlete with Disabilities Award. She will be honored at a banquet along with the new Colorado Sports Hall of Fame inductees.

In 2016, she became the first person diagnosed with Familial Spastic Paraparesis (FSP) to make the U.S. Paralympic team in Nordic skiing. She competed in Nationals last January and qualified for the World Cup in Germany. She hopes to earn a spot for the 2018 Paralympic Games. She recently qualified for the Paralympic World Championship Nordic events which will be held in Pyeong Chang, South Korea in March.

Rondeau is training in Grand County with Sini Pyy, a Paralympic athlete from Finland. As a Paralympic Nordic Skier, Pyy represented Finland in Sochi and has recently medaled in World Cup Events this season.

Liisa Lilja is also training with the group. Lilja is a Paralympic Triathlete who placed 4th in the Rio Paralympic Triathlon missing a medal by 30 seconds and is now working on her Nordic Skiing technique in Grand County. Mark Birdseye is the NSCD Competitive Nordic Coach who is coaching these three athletes.


Training programs vary each week for these women skiers depending on how they feel. Birdseye individualizes each training session.

He asks them: How are you feeling? What do we need to modify?

Since Pyy is only here in Grand County for four weeks she is taking advantage of training partners and coaching.

“I’ll rest when I get back [to Finland],” she said.

There’s not much training data for these athletes since there are many training variables, said Birdseye. He talks to other coaches, he reads a lot and takes classes at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs.

Pyy was an able-body Nordic skier before her accident. As a student of the sport she wants to learn everything in order to have longevity in the sport. She works with a coach in Finland to reach her goals.

“If you want to be an elite you have to push those limits,” said Pyy.

“If you go too easy you don’t stress/adapt. You have to know your limits.”

As she continues to learn about her body she knows when to rest and when to push it. Rest includes studying for her college degree, visiting friends and active recovery.

Rondeau has researched her disability and is not sure what to believe. Birdseye is a resource for her.

“He understands the language used in the research and will explain it to me,” she said.

“There is no one like Joy in Paralympics,” Birdseye said.

“Training is trial and error.”

Rondeau said she will have a span of a few good weeks and then will fall off.

“It’s frustrating to go through it. Mark pulls me back and asks questions: Did you get enough sleep? What are your stressors?”

“I always ask athletes questions,” said Birdseye.

“Do we have to go home or can you push through?”


NSCD Coach Birdseye said that it is a unique idea to put their athletes in able-body races. He discovered that athletes training for Paralympic Nationals in Maine often would race in able-body races. He started doing it, too.

“You need to get race replication,” he said.

“One of my goals when I started the program was to put our athletes in able-body races. It’s good for them but it also exposes the Nordic community to the Paralympic athlete.”

The three athletes raced in the Nordic Relay Festival held Sunday at Grand Park.

Rondeau likes the citizen races, as she calls them.

“You catch up to a standing skier and they see you passing and they get worn out trying to keep going,” she said.

Two weeks ago they raced in Steamboat at the Ski Haus Classic.

Rondeau raced the 7K. Pyy and Lilja raced the 14K.

“I love skiing,” said Pyy.

“I can’t think of anything I want to do other than skiing. As long as I stay healthy I can race until I’m 40 or 50.”

She has big goals: 2022 Paralympics in Beijing

She will be 30 in 2022 and knows what it will take to get there. It is why she came to Colorado to train with Birdseye and the NSCD program. Although, Rondeau was another reason she came back.

“Joy has a great attitude. We learn a lot from each other,” said Pyy.

Also coaching with Birdseye is Shawn Scholl.

“He has a Master’s degree in Exercise Physiology and brings so much to the program,” said Birdseye.

The athletes are thankful for the coaches and the training program.

“These guys spend their free time with us,” said Rondeau.

“They are doing it out of the kindness in their heart,” said Pyy, who will be leaving shortly to go back to Finland.

“I feel like they really care about us. Joy is in good hands.”

Birdseye is often asked why he devotes so much of his time to training athletes. His answer:

“It is seeing people achieve at the highest level. They are living like we all ought to live. They are trying to achieve at the highest level. We are all gifted or need to discover what we are good at. That is what great athletes do – what great people do.”

“We are not doing this to inspire others,” said Pyy.

“We just love skiing. We would be doing this even if we didn’t have an injury.”

Birdseye and Scholl want to thank Devil’s Thumb Ranch, Snow Mountain Ranch and Grand Lake Touring Center for supporting the NSCD program.

Support Local Journalism

Support Local Journalism

The Sky-Hi News strives to deliver powerful stories that spark emotion and focus on the place we live.

Over the past year, contributions from readers like you helped to fund some of our most important reporting, including coverage of the East Troublesome Fire.

If you value local journalism, consider making a contribution to our newsroom in support of the work we do.