Giant slalom, opportunity await Stephen Lawler in Sochi

By Jamie M. Blanchard | Feb. 26, 2014, 10 a.m. (ET)
Stephen Lawler
Stephen Lawler plans to compete at the Sochi 2014 Paralympic Winter Games, despite missing the world cup season because of a shoulder injury.

Stephen Lawler and Laurie Stephens
Stephen Lawler and Laurie Stephens show off their hardware from the 2013 International Paralympic Committee Alpine Skiing World Championships.

Stephen Lawler felt a pop.

He was on the giant slalom course at an International Paralympic Committee Alpine Skiing World Cup race in Australia – the second run of his first race – when he crashed on the soft snow.

“I hit a bump that I didn’t see,” he said.

“And I landed weird.”

His ski came off.

He was on his shoulder.  

“I knew it hurt but I didn’t think it was too bad,” Lawler said. “I felt a little pop in there, and it didn’t feel great, but it wasn’t that bad. I skied down the mountain and just sat there for a few minutes to cool down. About 20 minutes later, I couldn’t move my arm.”

His left supraspinatus muscle, one of the four rotator cuff muscles, was torn. His dream of becoming a U.S. Paralympian was broken.

“At that point, I thought the Paralympics were completely out of the question,” he said.

Three seasons on the U.S. Paralympics Alpine Skiing National Team had been undone.

The momentum of his 2013 world championship silver medal in downhill was erased.

“It was tough for me to have this happen so close to the Paralympics,” said Lawler, who injured his right shoulder in 2010. “You train four years for the Paralympics and four years is a long time.”

He needed shoulder surgery only weeks into the 2013-14 season. “It was tough to decide on surgery but I’m young, I want to have a good career and not just a bad Paralympics, so I wanted to get it taken care of,” he said. 

He returned home to Vermont for the third shoulder operation of his career. A patient of the same surgeon who treated him three years earlier, and in the same rehabilitation facility, Lawler began preparing for next season.

“I started physical therapy and was working really hard so I could get back to skiing,” Lawler said. “I wanted to get back as quickly as I could.”  

But the 2014 Paralympic Winter Games, March 7-16, were not on his timeline.

“I was initially told that I was done.”

But now Lawler, who has spina bifida, knows he has a chance.

Earlier this month, Lawler was officially named to the 2014 U.S. Paralympic Alpine Skiing Team, as the world cup points he previously accumulated held up throughout the 2013-14 season. He qualified for the giant slalom, the race that looked to take him out of contention for the Paralympic Winter Games.

“Just about three weeks ago, Sochi became a possibility,” Lawler said last week. “The date that I’m cleared to ski is very close to the Paralympics, so I just have to come back a little sooner. It’s so close that my coach wanted to give me the opportunity to ski since I had earned my spot.”

Lawler has not been on snow since the crash.

“Right now, I’m just trying to physically get back to where I need to be to ski,” he said. “It’s hard to keep in shape in a chair with one arm so I had a lot of weight to lose, a lot of muscle to bring back. I’m working on that and it’s going well. I’m watching video of myself to keep skiing fresh in my mind.”

He also scouted teammates at recent events in Colorado.

“Skiing has been on my mind,” said Lawler, who is doing physical therapy and strength and conditioning sessions five days a week in preparation for Sochi.

“I’m hoping to ski before the Paralympics but it’s pretty much about what I’m cleared to do,” he said. “At the moment, they’re not comfortable with that. I’m just continuing to work hard in hopes that I can have a great race in Sochi.”

The date of his return is unclear.

But he leaves Feb. 28 for Sochi.

And men’s giant slalom competition is March 15.

 “The original date they gave me a few months ago is March 17, which is the date I fly home from Sochi,” Lawler said. “So that’s what I mean by pushing the date forward just a little bit. It’s just a couple days for something I’ve been training for for a long time.”

The Paralympic Winter Games are once every four years.

Lawler has worked most of his life to qualify.

“It would be awesome to race,” he said. “It’s not ideal conditions because I haven’t skied all year but I like to think that I’ve skied long enough that I can pull something out. I just want to ski well for my country.”

Lawler started ski racing at 12.

Now he is 23.

“The Paralympics are the biggest event,” he said. “You work four years for it. If the doctors are comfortable with me skiing, I’m going to go out there and ski my hardest.”