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David Williams Had A Dream, Went For It And Now Is A Member Of The U.S. Para Alpine Ski Team

By Karen Price | Oct. 27, 2020, 5:09 p.m. (ET)

David Williams poses for a selfie on his boat. 

As one of the newest members of the U.S. Paralympics Alpine Ski Team, David Williams still can’t quite believe where he’s at right now.

In Austria, training with the team, spending day after day on the snow and preparing for as full a season of racing as possible. 

For someone who’d never skied in his life before sitting in a monoski for the first time six years ago, it’s proof that one just never knows where life can lead. 

“I’m having the time of my life,” said Williams, 41. “This is amazing. Just riding up the gondola and seeing the Alps, I never imagined this in my life. Ten years ago I never thought I’d be able to see this stuff. Just being here and being able to train with the best coaches, having the best support, the best teammates and everything else, it’s completely mind-blowing.”

Born in St. Louis, Williams lived there until he joined the U.S. Navy at the age of 20. He was stationed in Atsugi, Japan, when he had an accident and broke his back about a year later. 

“After that I had kind of a sad part of my life,” said Williams, who uses a wheelchair. “I was drinking a lot and going down a bad path. I did that for 10 years, and then I decided to get sober.”

In need of a change after quitting drinking, Williams moved to Miami.

One day, while volunteering at the local VA, one of the physical therapists mentioned a winter sports clinic through the Veterans Adaptive Sports organization. 

Williams had no interest.

He was happy to work out in the gym and was focused on being as healthy as he could be, he said, but he had never really been an athlete. Even growing up and prior to the injury he never really participated in sports outside of some beer league softball, so the idea just wasn’t appealing.

Somehow, he said, he nonetheless was talked into heading to Snowmass, Colorado, for the clinic.

“I had the best time,” he said. “I was out there with 100-plus other veterans learning how to monoski. It was such a good time and between the teachers and the athletes I saw there I was like, ‘This is what I want to do. This is what I want.’”

That was six years ago.

Williams went back to Miami and started researching monoskiing, and after he found videos of Paralympic gold and silver medalist Andrew Kurka flying down the mountain, he zeroed in on racing. He sent Kurka a message on Facebook to learn more.

“I’d never met him, never talked to the guy in my entire life but he walked me through the entire process of what I needed to do to get my foot in the door for training,” Williams said.

Williams bought a monoski — a freeski, he said, because he didn’t know anything about the difference between freeskiing and racing — and packed it and everything else in his car and drove to Colorado. He rented an apartment in downtown Aspen and used up all his savings in the first year, but his plan to learn the sport worked.

“I knew this was what I wanted to do and I was going to do everything in my power to make it possible,” he said. “I have no wife and no kids, so it was pretty easy to pack up my things and leave.”

In the beginning, Williams spent a lot of time near the U.S. adaptive team if not necessarily with them. He’d sit at the base of the course watching them train or ski in the public lane trying to mimic their movements, and every now and then the coaches would give him little things to work on. Eventually, several of the athletes took him under their wings when they were done with training and spent time teaching him the basics. 

Kurka would even fly back after being in Europe and go freeskiing with him, Williams said, giving him drills and things he could work by himself while Kurka was off traveling.

In his second year, Williams tried racing for the first time.

“It was horrible,” he said. “Horrible. It was a slalom race and I didn’t want to hit any gates so I was going around all of them and making such a huge line, but I got to the bottom and I was so excited. I didn’t fall, and that was the main focus.”

His goals increased with every race, and then during the first event of 2020, on a particularly snowy day on the giant slalom course at Winter Park in Colorado, he won and qualified for the U.S. team. People were blowing out left and right, Williams said, so his goal was to stay as close to the gates as possible and stay out of the fluff. He did well his first run, so his goal remained the same for the second run. After New Zealand Paralympian Corey Peters went off the course on his second run, Williams said, he got the win.

“This is going to sound really weird but in a way I felt remorseful or sad or undeserving,” he said. “I didn’t feel like I earned it and I felt bad. That’s what I told Kurka, but he said that’s how it goes, it’s ski racing, don’t feel bad because you did good. That’s what happens when you win. I was like OK, that makes sense, but I still had a pit in my stomach.”

Now, Williams jokes that he’s pretty old to be keeping up with the younger athletes on the team but he’s holding his own, making sure his conditioning, strength training and nutrition are all on point and hoping his maturity may give him a mental edge. With so many challenges still ahead of him, including learning new courses and conditions and managing the schedule of traveling and racing, he isn’t focusing so far ahead that he’s already thinking about the Beijing Paralympics in 2022. His goals for this season are much smaller than that, he said, and revolve mainly around continuing to improve and continuing to make his dreams come true.

“I’m living a literal dream right now,” he said. “This is where I want to be. I needed a big goal to take up my time and attention after I stopped drinking. Having such an involved sport and not knowing anything about it was the best thing in the entire world that could have happened to me.”

Karen Price

Karen Price is a reporter from Pittsburgh who has covered Olympic and Paralympic sports for various publications. She is a freelance contributor to USParaAlpine.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.