Paul DiBello poses for a photo.
She vividly remembers her first impression.
“He was scary,” she said. “He was just this out of this world, big burly guy and, to an 8-year-old, he was a giant.”
Described often as a gruff guy who had a tremendous heart, the two-time Paralympic alpine skier passed away from COVID-19 on April 29 in Aurora, Colorado. He was 69.
DiBello leaves behind a remarkable legacy, not just as an athlete, but also as a force in the world of Para Alpine Skiing who helped shape the U.S. program and influenced many others along the way.
One of them is Jones, an eight-time Paralympian in alpine skiing and cycling.
“On the business end he was that stern, mean guy, which is fine. Absolutely fine,” she said. “But that also meant that he had your back as an athlete. He may not always agree with you and you may not agree with him but at the end of the day when there’s a competition going on and something happens, he definitely has your back.”
DiBello’s story is something one would expect to see as a harrowing adventure tale in a movie or on television. In January 1974, at the age of 23, the avid outdoorsman and five others were on an ice climbing expedition on Mt. Katahdin in Maine when a storm blew in and trapped them on a ledge overnight. Temperatures dipped below zero as they struggled in the brutal cold and wind to stay alive. The next day, DiBello was the fifth one to leave the ledge trying to get help. Blinded by the cold, he crawled for hours on frostbitten legs following a candle he saw burning in a ranger’s cabin.
DiBello survived but lost both feet, part of his nose and several fingers. One person in the party, his close friend, died.
After double below-the-knee amputations and a long recovery, DiBello was determined to get back to an active, outdoor lifestyle and returned to skiing. By the early 1980s, he was a member of the U.S. Disabled Ski Team and his competitive career included gold medals in slalom, giant slalom and downhill at the Paralympic Winter Games Sarajevo 1984 and gold in the giant slalom in Innsbruck in 1988.
His passion for the sport didn’t end with his own competitions, however.
DiBello founded the National Sports Center for the Disabled competition program in 1984 and was the director until he left in 2004, developing and directing the program designed to train elite disabled skiers for regional, national and international competition.
Under his direction, partnering with Winter Park Resort, the NSCD began hosting the U.S. Disabled Alpine Skiing Nationals and the World Disabled Ski Championships in 1990, and athletes from the center were consistently atop the leaderboard during his tenure.
“He founded the adaptive program in Winter Park, the competition program, and it was the first full-time training program for adaptive alpine competitors in the world,” said U.S. Paralympics Alpine Skiing and Snowboarding Director Kevin Jardine. “He was a former national team member himself and saw the need for it. A majority of the athletes from the U.S. who came through his program were either identified by Paul or trained full-time with him at some point in their life. Many of the athletes from the U.S.A and many other nations, up until the 2010 Games in Vancouver were under Paul’s direction. He built a competitive program in alpine skiing for the disabled and he had a lot of the smaller nations that were struggling to be in the sport come to Winter Park and train. Paul’s vision was to get the best skiers in the world training together in one place.”
Jones was among the athletes who honed their skills there and took their careers to great heights. She won her first Paralympic winter medals in 2002 in Salt Lake City, earning silver in both the super-G and giant slalom. She grew up around DiBello, and her parents often placed her in his care during competitions they were unable to attend. She remembers DiBello and her father enjoying another shared passion — sailing — on Lake Granby not far from Winter Park.
Things like that, along with New Year’s Eve parties at his house where she remembers the longer you stayed the hotter the wing sauce got, gave her a chance to see his nice side.
Not that the nice side was ever too far from the no-nonsense side.
“Nice guy Paul and scary guy Paul, he always had that blend,” Jones said. “When he meant business it was business and jovialness was jovialness, but you could see it even when he was mad that one joke could push him to laughter. Then he’d get right back to business.”
Overall, Jones said, DiBello taught her how to be successful. The lessons he instilled, she said, set her up to go on to great things and grow in her career.
“From my perspective, he was the man you wanted to see on the hill because he made sure stuff happened,” she said. “That the safety was there, that the athletes were treated like adults and professionals and weren’t chopped liver, that we were elite athletes. We were legitimate ski racers and elite athletes there to compete, and having that kind of understanding and having someone impose that and embody that was pretty cool to see as a kid.”