Green looking for gold in Vancouver

Nov. 13, 2009, 12:08 p.m. (ET)

In his own words, Ralph Green describes himself as "ghetto fabulous." He's built like a linebacker, carries himself with confidence, and people in Brooklyn, Manhattan-all over New York, he says-if they don't know him, they at least know of him.

Back home in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn, where Green grew up, his picture even dons the walls of some corner stores.

So it's no surprise that one day, when Green was back in town, a passing car slowed down and the driver stuck his head out of the window.

"Yo, ain't you that dude that's ice skating in Alaska?" the driver asked.

Not quite, Green told him, taking the recognition as a compliment. Green is actually the guy skiing in Colorado. Still, the driver noticed. 

Green was bound to be famous-or ghetto fabulous-someday. Even now, as a 32-year-old, he can light up a room with his wide grin and charismatic, candid storytelling. Growing up, people looked at Green, a star high school quarterback, and saw him playing in the NFL someday. The biggest thing going against him was his surroundings.

"Growing up in the quote-unquote, 'hood, is something else," Green said. "It's got a lot of great experiences and you've got a lot of experiences that aren't so great."

Green grew up in the Roosevelt Houses, a public housing project in the heart of Brooklyn. His dad was in and out of jail, and Green credits his mom and stepfather with keeping him out of trouble.

Still, before he could even drive a car, Green said he saw a guy jump from a 16-story building and saw other guys get beat up. He said he witnessed shootings.

One night, when Green was 16, he was the one who was shot. He was hit in the lower back during a random street shooting, with the bullet hitting an artery. His leg had to be amputated at the hip. His future was uncertain, and his path to the NFL suddenly was closed.

But those who thought Green would be a professional athlete ended up being correct, he points out. His path just veered a little off course.

Backtrack a bit to 1994, about two years after Green lost his left leg. That's when he first tried skiing. He joined a group that went skiing in the Poconos, mainly just so he could tell his friends he went skiing, he said. After that, he didn't think much of skiing for a while.

But then in 2000, after he had completed three years at Long Island University in Brooklyn, he decided: "I didn't want to go to college anymore, point blank."

Green got in touch with the National Sports Center for the Disabled, and he decided to give skiing another shot.

With little more than $300 in his pocket and a bag full of sneakers, Green, then 22, hopped on the Amtrak and headed toward Winter Park, Colo. The NSCD helped him find lodging and welcomed him into its program. In a few years, Green made the national team, and then he found himself competing in the Torino 2006 Paralympic Winter Games.

Green ended up leaving Italy with a sour taste in his mouth. Expecting to compete and complete all four alpine skiing events, Green came away with a 36th and 46th place finish along with two DNFs.

But now, going into the Vancouver 2010 Paralympic Winter Games, Green is in top shape and has expectations of winning a medal.

"I was the athlete, I was definitely the one that everybody expected would make some professional team," said Green, who now lives in Vail, Colo. "I think it just goes to show, a lot of the speculators were probably right: I'm on the USA Paralympic Ski team. My athleticism, my drive, and my strive for excellence didn't stop, it just branched off, it just veered off in a different direction."

Green is disappointed with his performance in Torino, where he says he found himself continually lowering the bar for himself. This time, the bar is not moving.

"I feel really good, I'm really strong, I'm probably as strong as I've ever been in my life," Green said. "I leg press 750 pounds, bench press 310 pounds, my numbers are off the charts because I'm training, my work ethic is bananas these days. I ride my road bike a lot because this is what it takes to be the best. This is what it takes to not just go to Vancouver, but to be productive in Vancouver, to accomplish my goals. I just went to Torino."

Watching Green work a crowd in 2009, it's hard to believe the fun-loving guy would ever have trouble fitting in. But in 2000, when Green first arrived in Colorado, he felt more than just culture shock.

Green was 22, and most of his teammates were still in their teens. He found it hard to relate with a lot of people there. That's not to mention that he didn't have much money, sometimes resorting to being "the guy who eats his roommates' food," as he described himself.

After three months Green returned home. But soon he was back in Colorado with the same enthusiasm and drive that defines him today.

When he needed a sponsor, Green did not call potential companies and ask them to be his sponsor. He says he doesn't ask for anything. Instead, he called some companies and told them why they should be his sponsor. If they chose to work with him, great. If not, that's fine, too.

Over the years, he has worked with various sponsors, among them Cox Communications, Coca-Cola, Subaru and The Home Depot.

And yet he never forgot about the people who helped him. Green's big family had both lawyers and drug addicts, he said, and he learned from both. When talking to his dad recently, Green told him that he should thank Green's stepfather for raising Green to be the strong man he is today.

And then there's the former roommate, the guy who didn't just let Green eat his food, but when he saw that Green was struggling to buy his own, he made an effort to take Green out to dinner. That man is Green's current teammate, Carl Burnett, and Green has made an effort to pay Burnett back, which includes helping him find a sponsor.

When Green made the U.S. Adaptive Ski Team, he became the first black team member. It's not something he emphasizes too much when talking to the media, but it's also not something he takes for granted. Green works with the National Brotherhood of Skiers, which promotes skiing among minorities, and he often speaks to schoolchildren when he's back in Brooklyn.

Green knows he is not just an ambassador to his sport, but a proven example that a poor kid from Brooklyn can reach great heights with some hard work and a positive attitude.

At the 2009 U.S. Olympic Assembly in September, Green told an audience in Chicago that he didn't just want to be the best Paralympic skier; he wanted to be the best skier, period.

But after one day in Chicago, he was recognized more for his role in an independent movie, "Gospel Hill,'' than he was for his skiing. Green appeared in 13 scenes in the film that also starred big-name actors Danny Glover and Julia Stiles.

The director, Giancarlo Esposito, approached Green about playing a disabled veteran who was pushed to the limit after losing his job. A couple months later, Green got a call from a casting director.

"My first scene that we shot was with Danny Glover," he said.

"To go from never acting in life to being in a scene with Danny Glover. . ." he trails off, still spellbound by the experience.

But the only problem: Now he's back to that same problem that same identity crisis he faced in Brooklyn.

"I'm in the airport and somebody is like, 'Hey are you the guy from 'Gospel Hill?' " Green said. "And I'm like, 'Yeah, I'm the ski racer!' "

After Vancouver, he is hoping that will change.

But as long as people are noticing, he knows he has an opportunity to make a difference.

"If people can take something from my life," he said, "and if people can take something from what I'm doing and it can help in any way, then I'm doing my job as a Paralympian and as an active leader in today's society."

Story courtesy Red Line Editorial, Inc. Chrös McDougall is a freelance contributor for teamusa.org. This story was not subject to the approval of any National Governing Bodies.

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