Spencer Wood is a 21-year-old from Pittsfield, Vermont, currently competing at the Paralympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018. A long-time ski racer, Wood discovered Para alpine skiing three years ago.
“I was blown away,” said Wood, who competed as a standing skier in his first Para alpine race in January 2015, finishing fifth in a giant slalom in Winter Park, Colorado. “I didn’t realize mono skiers could ski faster than me down a race course. It was very eye-opening.”
Now Wood will compete with the best in the world in two events — slalom and giant slalom — in PyeongChang.
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Like many kids who grow up in Vermont, Spencer Wood was on skis around the time he could walk. His parents, Barb and Randy, were both ski instructors at Killington Resort in Central Vermont — it’s how the couple met. And they had their kids, Kali and Spencer, on skis early.
Spencer began skiing through gates at age 5 — younger than most programs will accept kids.
“My parents didn’t want to pay for day care,” joked Wood.
Wood’s parents knew the Killington Ski Club’s race program director — who also had run the ski school. The director agreed to “slip that one under the table, no problem,” said Wood.
He began competing in USSA (now U.S. Ski & Snowboard) races when he was 7 or 8 years old. He loved it and his parents joked that they would one day lose their son to the big mountains and deep snow of Colorado.
What they didn’t tell their son was that he was disabled. Wood had a left brain stroke in utero, which left him with right side hemiparesis. He has permanent weakness and muscle deficits on the right side of his body. Barb and Randy wanted their son to learn to adapt to his physical impairment on his own, without using it as an excuse.
But when Wood was 10, he wanted to try out for the baseball team, so his parents let him know that he would have challenges that his friends didn’t have on the field.
“As soon as I got onto a soccer field or went out to a baseball diamond, my disability was evident in the way that I would run or the way that I would throw,” said Wood. “Field sports, it just really set me apart from the rest of the group, and I didn’t really want to be set apart.”
But on skis, Wood felt like any other kid on the mountain.
“Skiing was something that came so naturally to me being a Vermonter and growing up in a ski town,” he said. “It seemed totally normal just to go out and rip with your friends and see who could be the fastest one down the hill.”
Pittsfield, where Wood grew up, sits just 12 miles north of Killington and is home to Olympian Chelsea Marshall and Spartan Race co-founder Joe De Sena.
Wood’s dream was to attend the Killington Mountain School, a ski-racing and sports academy. He was accepted as a freshman and graduated in 2015.
In the fall of his junior year, his ski-racing coaches suggested that he try Para skiing.
“My coaches are like, clearly you’re not number one on the podium, you should try this avenue of disabled skiing, you have the ability to do it,” said Wood.
But he resisted. He was unfamiliar with adaptive skiing and was unsure what was involved.
That winter, he did a semester abroad in Austria. While he was away, his mom talked to Erin Fernandez, the executive director of Vermont Adaptive, headquartered at Pico Mountain near Killington. She suggested that Spencer attend The Hartford Ski Spectacular in Breckenridge, Colorado, that December (2014). The Ski Spectacular is a weeklong winter sports festival for people with impairments. It attracts over 800 people annually and is one of the largest such events in the U.S.
At the Ski Spectacular, Spencer met the coach for the National Sports Center for the Disabled, a training program based in Winter Park, Colorado.
“He was like, look, these are your options, come train with us in Winter Park, you’ll never look back,” said Wood.
He also met Ralph Green, a three-time Paralympian. Green told Wood: “If I can give you any advice about this, it would be don’t do it for team, don’t do it for the jacket, do it to be the best in the world.”
Those words resonated with Wood. That was why he always wanted to ski race.
Wood returned to Colorado a month later, in January 2015, and entered his first Para alpine race. He finished fifth and knew the PyeongChang Games could be part of his future.
In the fall of 2016, Wood enrolled at the University of Colorado-Boulder. A public relations major, he has taken off this semester to prepare for the 2018 Games.
Medal favorites in standing slalom and giant slalom include reigning world champion Arthur Bauchet from France, a 17-year-old who won both events at the 2017 world championships; Aleksei Bugaev, a Neutral Paralympic Athlete who won the slalom gold medal and giant slalom silver at the 2014 Paralympics in Sochi and is currently leading the world standings; as well as U.S. teammate Jamie Stanton, a two-time Paralympian who finished fourth in slalom at the 2017 world championships.
Wood aspires to compete for the podium with these men. But for now, he knows his biggest competition is with himself.
“When I have a stress-free run, especially this year, I can just lay it down, I really have no problems,” he said. “So I just need to stay calm and stay focused.”
A freelance writer based in Vermont, Peggy Shinn has covered five Olympic Games. She has contributed to TeamUSA.org since its inception in 2008.