In many ways, life has come full circle for three of the world’s best Paralympic skiers.
Years ago, Chris Devlin-Young stood at the top hills at Waterville Valley Resort in New Hampshire, challenging two promising teen students to follow his lead and ski fast.
Laurie Stephens and Tyler Walker, bundled up in helmets, goggles and fully pulled-up neck gaiters, would shyly mumble something back at Devlin-Young and take off after him.
These days, Devlin-Young, soon to be 52, still skies with Stephens and Walker. But there is a bit of role reversal, as Stephens, a three-time Paralympic medalist, and Walker, an overall world downhill champion, are pushing him to go faster.
The three are hoping for a return trip to the Paralympic Winter Games, shooting for the upcoming ones March 7-16 in Sochi, Russia.
“I think it really does make it special for all of us that we have this relationship, a bond forged from learning to be skiers from me, and now, me learning from them too,” said Devlin-Young, who has represented Team USA in four Paralympic Winter Games and earned a silver medal in Torino in 2006. “It’s pretty amazing actually. Laurie and Tyler have gone from exceptionally talented kids that I just happened to run into as a ski teacher to now being the best in the world.
“The three of us share so much; that’s what the sport of skiing can do for you.”
The three crossed paths in New Hampshire, cementing their bond on the New England Disabled Ski Team.
Stephens, 29, and Walker, 27, take different approaches to skiing than Devlin-Young. Walker wants to feel things, learning by experiencing turn-by-turn, run-by-run. Stephens is a little quieter, taking everything in and figuring out what works best for her aggressive mono-skiing style.
Devlin-Young, by his own admission, prefers to talk things out and give his experience-based analysis. He has been one of the pioneers of the mono-ski racing world, having run on nearly every form of competitive gear.
And he’s still a ski teacher at heart.
“I bet Laurie and Tyler will say they have heard all of my stories a 100 times, and that’s probably true,” Devlin-Young said, laughing. “And it’s OK, I’m going to keep on telling the stories.”
Walker also laughed when asked about Devlin-Young’s professorial ski lectures.
“Chris knows I’m tuning him out by now, unless he’s got some newer material,” Walker said, in a friendly jibe. “He’s got great knowledge, and he’s seen and done everything in the sport. How can you not respect that?
“He wants to talk it out, really think about it out loud. I just want to go do it, feel it, see what the coaches were trying to tell me by experiencing it. That’s what works for me.”
Stephens added, “What’s great about Chris is how thoughtful he is about everything. He really wants to explain where he’s coming from, and that can be helpful when you’re talking about strategy or other things. And Tyler knows so much too, so we all talk about everything we’re doing and ski together.”
Walker, according to Devlin-Young, is skiing some of the best runs of his career this season. Walker is ranked No. 1 in the world in the IPC super-G but refuses putting pressure on him with Paralympic medal talk.
“That’s kind of stereotypical expectation, what everybody thinks my life’s goal is: to win a gold at the Paralympics,” Walker said. “It’s such a difficult and unlikely thing. I focus on process, and the gold medals happen.
“When it’s clicking and I am working, my performance is the best and I know I can win. When I know how to make it happen, the winning happens.”
Stephens is also chasing a third trip to the Paralympic Winter Games, and is the only U.S. reigning world champion in alpine skiing. She won the women’s sitting downhill competition at the 2013 International Paralympic Committee Alpine Skiing World Championships in La Molina, Spain, and added a bronze medal in the super-G.
She is working on reaching Sochi on a different mono-ski. She had the same one for nine years, winning two gold medals in the Torino 2006 Paralympic Winter Games and a silver medal in the Vancouver 2010 Paralympic Winter Games on it.
Technology has radically changed mono-skis, and Stephens needs to develop the same innate feel for her gear in less than a year.
“It’s not easy, I have to be really patient and just keep at it,” Stephens said. “I do a lot of runs, a lot of time spent putting it through every situation so I can know what it’s going to do on a turn, if I move this way or that. It’s a challenge.”
Devlin-Young said he never could have predicted advancements in mono-skis from the early 1990s, especially bringing technology from other industries to make them faster.
Walker wants to be part taking the sport even further, seeing his future in developing the “perfect” mono-ski. He wants to do backcountry skiing, freeskiing, to push his talent and the technology when he’s ready to stop competitive racing.
“It’s all about the skiing, the competition,” Walker said. “Being at this high level, we’ve all been on the national team together now for 10 years, really says something. It’s about the challenge of pushing yourself.”
Stephens and Walker can’t fathom being on the competitive circuit for another quarter-century to catch up to Devlin-Young’s career longevity.
“Tyler and I joke about we want to go one day longer than Chris, and then retire,” she said. “I think we’re all going to keep going until we’re not having fun anymore. But we’re all still having too much fun.”
Joanne C. Gerstner has covered two Olympic Games and writes regularly for the New York Times and other outlets about sports. She has written for TeamUSA.org since 2009 as a freelance contributor on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.