Michael LeBlanc competes in nordic skiing.
Michael LeBlanc’s Para Nordic skiing journey starts off sounding very similar to many kids’ introductions to sports.
He was in fifth grade, his friend was into Nordic skiing and she really wanted him to give it a try because she thought he’d have fun. LeBlanc is now a junior in high school and competes both on his high school team and a club team near his home of Minneapolis, Minnesota.
Where LeBlanc’s story differs, however, is that he doesn’t use poles. LeBlanc has a disability that he says doesn’t quite have a name — “It just comes from a lot of other disabilities because there’s nothing that quite meets all of it,” he said. “It’s very unique.” — in which he’s lacking a number of different bones and muscles in his arms.
Far from letting that stop him, however, LeBlanc is just now dipping his toes into the world of Para Nordic skiing. He made his debut at the World Para Nordic Ski NorAm in Midway, Utah, at the beginning of the month, won three gold medals and is now traveling to Europe to race for the first time in world cup competition.
“I really just want to try to put my best ski forward and leave everything out there that I can and let that speak for me,” said LeBlanc, 17.
Up until his trip to Utah, LeBlanc had raced only against able-bodied athletes. When he was first starting out, his high school coaches at Benilde-St. Margaret’s helped him to develop skills and techniques that would work for him and help compensate for missing the power and stability other skiers get from their poles. Still, LeBlanc wasn’t getting the same results as his peers.
Last year, however, his high school athletic conference began allowing the use of time factoring, which is used in international Para sports to allow athletes with different impairments to race against one another and takes a certain percentage of time off an athlete’s result based on their particular disability.
In LeBlanc’s case, his time is cut by 21 percent in a classic race and 11 percent in a freestyle race. It helps, he said, to track his progress and get a better sense of how he stacks up.
“I like not only how supportive everyone’s been on my team but also the teams I’m competing against,” he said. “They’re all open to this idea because they want to see an even playing field, not just for me but for adaptive athletes in the future as well.”
BethAnn Chamberlain is a development coach with U.S. Para Nordic skiing athletes who also lives in Minnesota and first met LeBlanc at an adaptive clinic she was hosting. He was just starting out in the sport, she said, and was there to learn as much as he could. While there are a number of skiers who use one pole, Chamberlain said, he’s the only one she’s ever worked with in the LW5/7 class with impairments in both arms and using no poles.
“He was young and interested in just skiing with all his peers despite not skiing with poles,” she said. “It didn’t seem to faze him at all. He just clearly wanted to ski.”
Chamberlain kept in touch with LeBlanc and his family over the years, inviting him to different clinics and camps, but he rarely participated with the exception of coming out to volunteer at her events with Shriner’s Hospital helping younger kids with disabilities get on skis. This past spring, however, he told her he was interested in coming to a camp in Bend, Oregon.
In Utah earlier this month, LeBlanc competed in the middle-distance cross-country sprint, cross-country sprint and biathlon sprint in the men’s standing class, competing not only against other athletes with upper limb impairments but also visually impaired athletes. At the award ceremony for some of the sitting class athletes, LeBlanc said, Director of U.S. Paralympics Nordic Skiing Eileen Carey pulled him aside.
“She said, ‘Can I talk to you? Do you own a passport?’ and I was like, what?” LeBlanc said. “I thought what is happening? It must be something about my flight home. It wasn’t.”
Carey told him they wanted him to go to the next world cup competition in Germany.
LeBlanc, of course, had to clear it with his parents and teachers. No one had any objections.
“They were really happy and my teachers were like, ‘Yes, go to Germany and represent us, that’s a huge thing,’” he said.
He will, however, have some school work to do while he’s there, including writing a paper about the culture of Germany and his fellow competitors.
Right now his “studying” for what’s to come includes looking up YouTube videos of races on the courses where he’ll be competing in addition to his on-snow training.
“There are a lot of videos of the (race) starts and there are actually a couple people who used no poles, which was kind of funny to me,” he said. “I was like, ‘Hey! There’s a no-pole skier!’ I was looking for the course but now I’m looking at him like oh, he does it this way.”
Racing internationally against a high level of competition is usually a big boost for any skier, Chamberlain said. She believes it will be the same for LeBlanc.
“I would say for Michael to have the opportunity to race against a big international field of athletes who are more similar to him than anyone else he’s ever raced before is only going to be that much more exciting and motivating and fun,” she said.