Manely, now 64, turned to ski racing following his functional neurological disorder diagnosis and eventually earned a world ranking. (Photos Courtesy: Nick Manely)
Nick Manely was in his mid-50s when parts of his body just stopped working.
All of a sudden it would be his legs, and then his arms. Sometimes he couldn’t move at all. It didn’t last, but it also kept happening. Then one day in 2009 he was skiing with his family at Winter Park, Colorado, on a gorgeous day with two feet of fresh powder and it took him 90 minutes to get down a run that usually took him five.
“I didn’t know what was going on,” said Manely, now 64. “I fought through it, kept going, and went to the doctor. They did all these tests and said I either had ALS or Lambert-Eaton syndrome or paraneoplastic syndrome or multiple myeloma. It wasn’t a very good range (of diagnoses).”
It turns out that Manely has something called functional neurological disorder, described by the National Organization for Rare Disorders as a “medical condition in which there is a problem with the functioning of the nervous system and how the brain and body sends and/or receives signals.” He didn’t get that diagnosis until 2015, however, and the years prior weren’t easy. Not only did Manely experience decreasing function in his limbs, visual impairments and other physical issues but also the doubts of others, including doctors and his family, who believed his problems were all in his head.
Skiing, and ski racing, became key to his ability to cope.
“Skiing gave me a survivability that I couldn’t get in another world, the regular world,” he said. “And it still does. If it wasn’t for skiing I really wouldn’t be alive, to be honest.”[Text Wrapping Break]
Manely grew up in Lakewood, Colorado, a suburb of Denver, and skiing was always a part of his life.
As his physical condition deteriorated, he called the National Sports Center for the Disabled in Winter Park, where in his 20s he’d once taught skiing to blind children in exchange for a season pass.
“I told them, ‘This is my situation, I’d like to get on the hill,’” Manely said. “At that time I could barely walk, I was off and on using a walker, so I signed up for monoskiing lessons.”
Eventually Manely was able to link a few turns together, but he didn’t have the arm strength to use the outriggers, he said, and he was always falling. Then they tried a bi-ski, which was better, but Manely was already thinking ahead and knew that wasn’t an option.
“I said, ‘No, I can’t compete in this,’” he said. “And (the instructors) said, ‘What are your goals?’ and I said, ‘When are the next Paralympics? I want to do that and I want to do the X Games and go off the big jumps.’ So they looked at each other and said, ‘Well do you want to try to stand up again?’”
Manely eventually reached the point where he could put some turns together and make it down the run standing. He felt like a new colt trying to walk, he said, but he did it.
The next year Winter Park hosted the NASTAR national championships, and Manely qualified to compete.
“I always wanted to be an Olympian, always wanted to do something in the Olympics, so I said well maybe I can do Para sports, and if I can ski normally again I can live in the world and maybe get through this and have a new normal and reinvent myself,” said Manely, who never raced as an able-bodied skier.
That summer, Manely got a letter inviting him to join the racing program at NSCD. He found sponsors who donated equipment and started training once or twice a week. His first race as a member of the team didn’t go so well — Manely made a wrong turn heading to inspection and ended up on a nearly-bare hill skiing over rocks and roots — but he’d go on to race for the next eight years.
He also started guiding for visually impaired skiers, including Todd Taylor. Together they won four silver medals — one in slalom, two in giant slalom and one in super-G — at competitions including the internationally sanctioned Huntsman Cup for Paralympic hopefuls.
Manely never did make it to the Paralympics or the X Games. In fact, the medals won with Taylor were the only times he reached the podium, but that’s OK.
“My ranking a couple times got into the top 50 or top 60,” he said. “I can tell my grandkids I had a world ranking. I’m still very proud of that.”
Manely retired from racing but never had what he knew would be his last race, so he’d like to compete one more time, he said. He stays engaged through his artwork and raising awareness and money for functional neurological disorder research and adaptive sports, and is still active on the hill, teaching able-bodied kids at Eldora Mountain in Boulder County.
His next goal is to become an international coach and perhaps one day go to the Paralympics in that capacity.
“That’s now my next golden ring,” he said. “Every time I climb a mountain I look for another mountain to climb.”