For Stephanie Jallen, Sochi will be 'cherry on top of an awesome cake'

By Alex Sopko | Jan. 17, 2014, 2 p.m. (ET)
Stephanie Jallen
Stephanie Jallen, 17, is one of the top hopefuls for the 2014 U.S. Paralympic Team. She is one of only about 60 people worldwide with a rare birth defect called CHILD Syndrome.

At 11 years old, Stephanie Jallen walked into the Pennsylvania State Senate to talk about her experiences skiing with U.S. veterans from the Iraq War. Tiny compared to the Senate podium, Jallen confidently declared:

“My goal is to make it to the Paralympics. I hope to one day return to you and show you my Paralympic medal.”

Now, after making the U.S. Paralympics Alpine Skiing National Team in 2011 and rising in the ranks ever since, Jallen is poised to make that remark come true and compete at her first Paralympic Winter Games. And she hasn’t even graduated high school.

Stephanie Jallen
Stephanie Jallen, shown competing in 2009, is a high school senior. She will attend Kings College in Wilksbury, Pa., next year.

“It’s unbelievably exciting,” she said. “To go there and come back, I haven’t even thought that far yet.”

While yet to be officially named to the team – U.S. Paralympics will nominate the roster in the first week of February – Jallen’s gold medal run at the Australian world cup in September and subsequent success have put her in the top spot for U.S. women’s standing skiing. 

“We’re treating her as if she’s going, renting the equipment, learning the language,” Jallen’s mother, Deb, explained.  “What will we do when the official notice comes out? We’re hoping she’s collected, and at that time I think we’re all going to go crazy.”

“To be honest with you, for all of these years I don’t think we’ve had this ultimate goal, but with it around the corner now it feels so surreal,” she said. “What’s really incredible is that Stephanie has worked this hard to make it to this day.”

Stephanie is one of only about 60 people worldwide with a rare birth defect called CHILD (congenital hemidysplasia with ichthyosiform erythroderma and limb defects) Syndrome. Born with only one full arm and one full leg, she plays soccer, works out, and competes with only the occasional help of an outward for balance.

Even more impressive though, unlike many athletes who take time off from school, Jallen trains and competes while also balancing academics. Earlier this year, Stephanie found out that she had been accepted to local Kings College in Wilksbury, Pa. and will be starting as a freshman next fall.

“Education comes first,” Deb said. “If it came down to her having to leave school to train and compete, she’d have to put it on the backburner. If Stephanie was struggling or showing signs of distress in any way shape or form, trust me it’d be done, but Stephanie has shown me such incredible strength. I don’t know where she gets it from.”

That strength has been necessary for Stephanie who has had to deal with the pressure of competition alongside the pressures of high school. Even today, Stephanie says many at her school assume her training trips are just excuses for vacations. 

“It’s extremely stressful, especially with high school,” she said. “And it hurts! Any athlete will tell you that their body starts falling apart really quickly.  But I just love the freedom. When I walk, I walk with a crutch or I use a wheelchair or I have the leg, and each of those things limits me. When I’m skiing, I have an outward but I don’t even need it, and I can just go. That’s the best part.”

The best part may be to come though if Stephanie makes the Paralympic team, just as she told the Pennsylvania Senate she was going to do.

“She had no clue what she was talking about but she had that faith built in her,” Deb said laughing. “The fact that she was born the way she was and having that mental drive to look over that disability – people were very touched by the fact that this child who has these developmental issues, physically nothing stops her.”

Stephanie first started skiing at nine years old at a camp for disabled children. As the first individual with one arm and leg invited to the camp, instructors suggested she try sitting down in a mono-ski. 

“So I’m driving out with Stephanie and I’m explaining this to her and she says, ‘Oh no, I don’t care what you say I’m skiing on one leg,” Deb said.

Stephanie started training in Colorado and was soon invited to attend the 2010 Vancouver Paralympic Winter Games as part of the Paralympic Experience Program. Officially invited onto the national team a year later, Stephanie was and still is the youngest on the squad.

“There were times when she would feel out of place being the school kid with all of these adults, but they never made her feel like she wasn’t welcome, and I think everybody kind of had a special place for her and watched over her,” Deb said.  

That made life easier for Deb who still recalls when Stephanie crashed on a race course in Canada and had to get stitches in a small hut on the mountain.

“God love Stephanie she’s a very strong independent trooper, but she’s had her scary moments, and she’s had her times when she’s wondered if this is really worth it,” she said. “But when she reaches the podium, and that sense of honor representing the country, I think that is her drive now.”

“Now she’s getting the willies because she realizes that the Paralympics are right around the corner. It’s going to be one of the most incredible moments of her life.”

Stephanie’s mom and family will not be joining her in Sochi if she is nominated for the Paralympic Winter Games. But neither mom nor daughter is concerned as they know Stephanie will be focusing on only one thing.

“I definitely want to medal,” Stephanie said. “I want to take these nine years and finally put something together and see if I can podium. And how that works is just doing the best I can do. It’s going to be hard, for sure, but that’s my goal.”

Even without a medal and even if she isn’t chosen for the 2014 U.S. Paralympic Team, the standing skier know she will be happy.

“To me, right now, I already feel like I’ve made these nine years worth it,” she said.

“All of the experiences that I’ve done, from bungee jumping to meeting somebody completely new, I’ve done countless of things that no medal or picture can ever describe. I’ve already done so much, and Sochi is the giant cherry on top of an awesome cake.”