Stephani Victor won three medals, including a gold, at the Vancouver 2010 Paralympic Winter Games, which marked her third Games.
If anyone has learned anything by now about Stephani Victor, it’s to never tell her she can’t do something. She has a habit of doing just the opposite. Those words will be left in the dust.
Victor, one of the world’s top adaptive sitting alpine ski racers, has won five medals in the last three Paralympic Winter Games, including a gold medal and two silver medals in 2010 in Vancouver. But an injury involving her adductor muscle and femur kept her out of racing for nearly the past two seasons and now, with the Sochi 2014 Paralympic Winter Games coming up in March, she is staging a comeback.
“People said that at (my age) you’re never going to make a comeback,” said Victor, who turned 44 in August. “My feeling is, as long as I am ranked in the top three in the world, I have a right to keep going.”
So, here’s what her comeback looks like so far: In August, she began the 2013 International Paralympic Commitee Alpine Skiing World Cup season with seven consecutive ski race victories. Through her three world cups in New Zealand and Australia this season, she is the top sitting skier in the overall rankings, with a sizable lead of 300 points.
She skis all alpine disciplines, which includes downhill, super-G, giant slalom, slalom and super combined. Individually, she’s ranked in the Top 3 in the world in two disciplines and in the Top 5 in two others. She has not skied downhill yet this season, but plans to. There were no downhill races scheduled in her world cup events.
Victor began training in New Zealand in early August, nearly three weeks before the first event began. Marcel Kuonen, her husband and coach, thought she needed to build confidence by training on the race hill itself. “I needed to put the 2012 season behind me and get it together,” Victor said. “So we outlined a plan and I was able to train with the Canadian team before the U.S. team came in.”
Since she made her international debut in 2001, Victor has won two Paralympic gold medals, two silvers and a bronze. She has won four world championships, five overall world cup titles in the individual disciplines and one overall world cup championship, the latter of which she won in 2007. She has 24 world cup victories. Should she make the U.S. team at the Sochi 2014 Paralympic Winter Games, it would be her fourth appearance in the Games.
“I raced the Sochi course last year, and I did miserable,” Victor said. “But I love the course. It’s so expansive and has such a big ski area. I want to have the experience of competing in Russia.”
From an early age, Victor wanted to achieve big dreams. At 4, she tried to persuade her parents to move from Pittsburgh to Hollywood so she could be an actress. She couldn’t understand their reluctance.
When she was in sixth grade, she and her mother attended a presentation by author Hilary Hinton “Zig” Ziglar, who was promoting his book, “See You at the Top.”
“My mom and I sat in the front row,” Victor said. “Zig Ziglar was talking about skills to climb the ladder and steps to success, about striving for excellence and living your dream. So my mom and I each bought a book, and I used it for my school book report presentation. I told my mom I needed to buy a suit, and I was so proud that day putting on my suit and panty hose. I stood in front of the class and morphed into Zig.”
Then, in 1995, when she was 26, Victor suffered a terrible accident that resulted in the amputation of her legs, and heavily tested her resolve.
Ironically, she said, the accident happened on the first day she hadn’t run in the morning. It was probably the first time she had missed her morning run in five years. She had overslept and scrambled to get to work. She was an actress and an aspiring filmmaker living in Los Angeles. She appeared in several television shows, pilots and commercials. She also had a day job.
That night, as she stood in a driveway loading her car, another car went out of control and crashed into her. She was pinned between the two cars and dragged about 15 feet. As she described it, it was like she had stepped on a land mine.
She would never run again. But she would ski.
Whether or not the tragedy that took Victor’s legs that night was destined, the result became her destiny, and she took hold. She had always been a physically active person, especially as a runner and dancer. Throughout three long years in and out of the hospital, she kept looking for a sport she could do that would free her mind and let her achieve again physically.
Victor had never been more than a recreational skier, but that didn’t dissuade her.
“I tried wheelchair track, but it reminded me of how I used to run a track, and how I wasn’t doing it now,” Victor said. “Then I tried skiing. At that first lesson, Marcel was telling me this and that and I just took off and then I crashed. Everything was strewn like a yard sale. So I unbuckled the belt and went to stand up. I forgot I didn’t have legs. It was like the sea parting. Skiing gave me the freedom to be involved in the nature and the snow and going fast and executing turns, and I said, ‘I want to do this the rest of my life.’”
When she’s not skiing, or training, Victor is a motivational speaker. She has been a spokesperson for The Hartford’s athlete ambassador program for more than eight years, hoping to change public attitudes and perceptions about disabilities. She also has served as an athlete ambassador for the U.S. Olympic Committee’s Team for Tomorrow program, which works with a variety of youth-focused programs to spread the positive messages of Olympic and Paralympic ideals, living a healthy lifestyle and using sports to make a positive difference. She and Kuonen, whom she married in 2006, split their time between Park City, Utah, and Los Angeles.
In 2010, Victor was featured in “The Story,” a film by The Ski Channel about top athletes who are devoted to mountain sports. When the film made its premiere in Hollywood, a critic wrote that Victor’s courage and spirit brought the audience to tears. “She’s an inspiration and her fortitude should be bottled in glass jars and sold everywhere,” wrote Examiner.com.
“I grew up watching my mom interact with people in a great way, not only in her job speaking in front of groups, but even at the supermarket,” Victor said. “She would start talking with someone and say positive things and then they would connect. She would make people feel good, and I wanted to be that way. I wanted to inspire listeners and have that connection. I became very driven to live life with a positive outlook.
“So in the face of tragedy, now, it became a very dramatic backdrop to be implementing this positive, inspiring message. I was clinging to life on life support with the very life force that was me. And it was very much present.”
Before her accident, Victor had earned two undergraduate degrees in film from the University of Southern California, and discovered a passion for documentaries. So it didn’t surprise anyone who knows her that just a few days after being taken off life support she decided to film her entire recovery. She wanted to start right then. She told her mom she dreamt that she was sitting in an audience taking notes and seeing her life unfolding on film. She decided she would make an uplifting film.
She immediately started filming. And she also continued acting, appearing in a couple of movies and starring in an independent film, “30, Still Single, Contemplating Suicide.” In 1999, she was promoting that movie at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City when she decided to take her first adaptive ski lesson. Kuonen was her instructor. He recognized Victor’s athletic ability and gave her a new goal. If she worked with him, he said, she could aspire to make the U.S. Paralympic Team and compete in the Salt Lake City 2002 Paralympic Winter Games.
“My goal was to win a gold medal in Salt Lake and that would be the end to the film,” Victor said. “But I won a bronze. And even though that was a great honor, anybody who knows me knew I couldn’t end the film with a bronze.”
About 800 hours of video sit in two boxes in Victor’s home. The film, which she titled, “The Lengths I Will Go,” is not finished. Neither is she.
“When you say yes to the universe it hears you, and it works to help you to fulfill destiny.” Victor said.
Maryann Hudson is a freelance writer from Pasadena, Calif. She was previously an investigative reporter for the Los Angeles Times. She has written for TeamUSA.org and USParalympics.org since 2012 as a freelance contributor on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.