Among the 26 U.S. athletes and four guides nominated to the 2014 U.S. Paralympic Alpine Skiing Team, two of the athletes have previous Paralympic experience — for other countries. Jasmin Bambur (formerly of Serbia) and Melanie Schwartz (Canada) will suit up for Team USA at the Paralympic Winter Games, March 7-16 in Sochi.
Jasmin Bambur always liked to go fast
Jasmin Bambur competes in January 2014 at a world cup in Copper Mountain, Colo.
In 1991, Bambur’s parents, concerned about the unstable wartime environment in Bosnia, moved their family to northern Serbia. However, after only a few short years the hostilities had spread, and Bambur was sent to live and attend high school in the United States.
“Serbia was kind of crazy, but it was still my home,” said Bambur, who was granted U.S. citizenship in 2010 and joined the U.S. Paralympics alpine skiing program in 2012. “Being war-torn and unstable, you kind of get used to that. Then you come here (the United States) and everything is nice and the stores have full shelves. It was kind of overwhelming at first.”
A devastating automobile accident in early January 2000 left Bambur with a severe spinal cord injury. He is a paraplegic.
While recovering at the Shepherd Center in Atlanta, Bambur, a former world-class handball player, set his sights on the Paralympic Games and, within nine months, he was on skis.
Bambur had skied as a child in Bosnia and Serbia, with his father acting as his coach. Learning to ski on a mono-ski was a challenge, however in a few short months, he was keeping up with able-bodied athletes on the slopes.
“I was always looking for a way to go fast out of my wheelchair,” Bambur said. “I was always going too fast and out of control on the slopes. Finally, one day, one of the ski patrol guys asked me, ‘If you like to go so fast, why don’t you just go race?’”
In 2010, Bambur became the first Serbian to compete at the Paralympic Winter Games and, with his top-10 finish, set his sights on competing in 2014.
“Serbia is a great country, but the funding for Paralympic sports is so limited, and I just couldn’t find support,” Bambur said. “I was granted dual Serbian and American citizenship in 2011, and decided that I was going to compete for the United States and take my career to the next level.”
Bambur plans to compete in all five alpine events — downhill, super-G, super combined, slalom and giant slalom — in Sochi, and is excited to represent his “second home” at the Games.
“Winning a medal would be a dream come true,” Bambur said. “I’m so grateful to the U.S. and my coaches who have given me the chance to compete for them. I’m going to do everything in my power to bring a medal home.”
Melanie Schwartz followed a Facebook lead
Melanie Schwartz won the slalom title at the 2013 world cup in Queenstown, New Zealand.
What started as a joking Facebook post turned into a second Paralympic Winter Games experience for Schwartz, who placed 10th in the super combined in Vancouver.
“One day on Facebook, kind of half joking, half serious, I asked Kevin Jardine (the U.S. Paralympics high performance director for alpine skiing and snowboarding), who happens to be a dual citizen himself: ‘If I get my U.S. citizenship, can I be on your team?’” Schwartz, who was born in Toronto, said. “And he said yes!”
Although her father was born and raised in New York, Schwartz said he was never really sure if he retained his U.S. citizenship after being granted Canadian citizenship.
“My sisters and I would ask him, and he always said he didn’t know,” Schwartz recalled. “It would make us crazy, we were always saying, ‘It’s not that hard, dad, either you are or you aren’t.’ It never really occurred to me that I could have dual citizenship, because truthfully, we never really knew if my dad was still American or not.”
Although she participated in several sports as a child, she didn’t take up skiing until she was an adult.
“When I was a kid, I did all sorts of sports, but I wasn’t able to go as fast as everyone else,” she said. “All sports — soccer, basketball, baseball — they all involve running. I wanted to participate in a sport where not having a leg wasn’t a disadvantage.”
Skiing, Schwartz said, allowed her to experience the speed that she never could as a child. As a congenital leg amputee who is also missing most of her right hip, she races on one ski with two outriggers, which are similar to poles with ski tips at the bottom.
Now a full-time Paralympic alpine skiing athlete, Schwartz transitioned to the U.S. program in 2012 and now lives in Aspen, Colo., where she trains with the Aspen Valley Ski and Snowboard Club.
“Not only do I have big mountains to train in, the ski season is a lot longer,” she said. “In Canada, the season is only about two or three months long. Here, I’m pretty much on snow for six months out of the year. The coaching here is incredible, and the training is superior.”
“I’m so grateful that I was able to go to the 2010 Games as a Canadian,” Schwartz continued. “But I’m really thrilled to be going to Sochi with the American team.”