Stephen Lawler competes in the Men Slalom Sitting LW12-1 in the IPC Alpine Adaptive Slalom Southern Hemisphere Cup during the Winter Games NZ at Coronet Peak on August 24, 2015 in Queenstown, New Zealand.
Two-time Paralympic alpine skier Stephen Lawler has a long-standing reputation for loving speed.
When he tried mono skiing for the first time as a 6-year-old, he thought it was a sled so he just took off straight down the hill.
Unfortunately, Lawler also has a thing for shoulder injuries.
The 30-year-old from Burlington, Vermont, is missing the 2020-21 season as he awaits surgery for an injury sustained last February at the world cup opener in Russia.
“This is going to be my fifth shoulder surgery,” said Lawler, who was born with spina bifida.
After missing most of the 2010 season because of a shoulder injury, Lawler came back and his career took off. He won the silver medal in downhill at the world championships in 2013, but later that summer he suffered another shoulder injury and had surgery in the fall.
Despite being off the snow leading up to the Paralympic Winter Games Sochi 2014, he’d qualified to compete and coaches added him to the team. However, once there, doctors determined it wasn’t in his best interest to race.
Once again, Lawler healed up and returned to racing, but then leading up to the 2018 Games in PyeongChang, he suffered dislocation after dislocation. His shoulder popped out 11 times in the 14 months prior to the Paralympics, he said, but he didn’t want to have surgery because the recovery time would make competing in PyeongChang impossible. Still, it got to the point where the coaches didn’t want him racing more than necessary and when he did, he was trying more to not fall than to win.
Lawler did race in PyeongChang and was 19th in downhill and 22nd in super-G.
He had surgery after the Paralympics ended and took the 2018-19 season off. He got back on snow for the 2019-20 season and was starting to feel like he was hitting his stride as the U.S. Para alpine team prepared for the world cup opener at Sakhalin Island, Russia, just north of Japan in the Pacific Ocean.
His Instagram tells the rest of the story.
There’s a selfie of Lawler and his teammates at the opening ceremony, and two days later a photo of Lawler with his face bloodied and his left arm in a sling with the caption, “Well that didn’t go as planned. Pretty beat up after this one. We will see how I feel in a few days.”
Soon, he was on a plane back to the United States; upgraded to first class because of the injury, which was nice, he said, but also knowing that he’d broken the screws that held his shoulder in place.
That was last February, and Lawler is still waiting on surgery.
Just after his return to Colorado, the COVID-19 pandemic began spreading throughout the U.S. His surgery wasn’t critical, and since he’ll need two months in a rehabilitation facility afterward and doctors feared another spike in the fall, the medical team decided to hold off.
They’re hoping that he can have the operation — his third on the left to go along with two on the right — in January or February.
“Shoulders are weird,” he said. “They aren’t bad until they come out, so it doesn’t bug me on a day-to-day basis. But when I transfer to my wheelchair it starts to slip out of the socket. It’s not debilitating, but it doesn’t work well the way it is.”
Lawler recently bought his first home in Colorado Springs, Colorado, so that’s been occupying some of the time he’d normally be spending on the mountain right now. He’s also been working for a friend’s medical supply company. It’s mostly remote work, although it occasionally requires him to drive to Winter Park, where he normally trains.
“I see everyone up there and start to get pretty jealous, but it’ll be OK,” he said.
And if ever there were a season to miss, this would be it with all the uncertainty surrounding COVID-19 and the racing schedule subject to change.
If the surgery does happen as planned, Lawler should be ready to go in time for the team’s return to snow to start the 2021-22 season and preparations for Beijing.
“To feel really good it takes about a year, but I’ll be cleared to ski at six months,” he said. “So the timing should be pretty good.”