Robert Enigl at his first Paralympic Games. (Photo: Joe Kusumoto)
Robert Enigl wouldn’t describe himself as a thrill seeker. But he’s not the least bit afraid of taking risks, either.
The 38-year-old Enigl, who grew up in Wisconsin before moving to Bozeman, Montana, in 2011, had never skied until after a 2014 car accident left him paralyzed without the use of his legs. Just four months later, he tried monoskiing for the first time. After getting through the initial falls and discomforts that come with trying anything new, he decided to tackle the Big Couloir, the most famous run at Montana’s Big Sky Resort.
It was quite a challenge, especially navigating through snow and rocky terrain on a monoski. But Enigl completed the run with his friend Dave Poole, who was also in a monoski. It was one of the biggest thrills of his life.
“I skied horribly, but I made it down,” Enigl said. “Me and Dave were quite reckless, but it was great because I built a lot of confidence early on.”
Just a few years later, Enigl was making his Paralympic debut for Team USA. He finished 15th in slalom and 21st in giant slalom in March at the Paralympic Winter Games Beijing 2022.
As a kid growing up in Appleton, Wisconsin, Enigl got a firsthand look at people who don’t always have access to the same opportunities as others. His mother, Debra Zierler, regularly took in high-risk foster children. Enigl mentored them during his high school years, and it taught him a lot about the importance of developing a strong support system for success.
“I’m a firm believer no one gets to where they are by themselves,” he said. “There’s always people behind the scenes that help you get to where you are. Having good parents and good mentors in your life is how you develop.”
In October 2014, Enigl was on a hunting trip with a friend when their car flipped over several times after losing control. Coincidentally, just the week before, he had met Poole after selling him a phone at the cellular store where he worked.
“He told me all this cool stuff he did (in his wheelchair),” Enigl said. “I actually said if I was ever in a wheelchair, I’d rock it just like him.”
Enigl didn’t know at the time how prophetic those words would be. A week after the accident, he called Poole to tell him he had been paralyzed. Poole came to Craig Hospital in Englewood, Colorado, where Enigl was being treated.
“He said there are some things that are going to suck, but you’re going to be able to ski and all this cool stuff,” Enigl said. “A lot of people have a big pity party for themselves those first couple of years. Two months after being paralyzed, I went on a five-day rafting trip and got into skiing right away, mainly because of (Dave).”
Enigl had tried both skateboarding and snowboarding as a kid, which helped him adapt to a sit ski. In 2019, he attended a heli-ski camp in Alaska, where he became acquainted with Paralympian Andrew Kurka, Ravi Drugan and other top Para ski racers. That’s when he realized there was a different aspect of the sport that he wanted to be a part of.
“My adaptive program at Big Sky didn’t have a lot of interest in doing advanced skiing and promoting independence,” Enigl said. “Doing Alaska heli-ski Camp was really cool. You could see there was a difference. They didn’t want to make their athletes get down the hill, they wanted to make their athletes get down the hill better than anyone else.”
While the competitive nature of ski racing drives a lot of athletes in the sport, Enigl is focused on one thing: to ski as fast as he can down a course. He watches the scoreboard more to see if he’s improving rather than where he finishes. The science behind skiing better fascinates him.
During world cup competition this past season, Enigl was still learning how to make proper turns but wasn’t sure if he was making them correctly. On the day of a race in Are, Sweden, Enigl approached Kurka, a Paralympic gold medalist, for advice.
“I think Andrew Kurka is one of the best mentors we’ve had,” Enigl said. “While he should have been doing warmups, he stopped and took time. He basically told me I was doing stuff completely backwards. It was like a light bulb went off in my head. I had some really cool moments where people say they plateau. I had a breakthrough.”
Enigl took that advice and applied it to his training. While he didn’t make the podium in Beijing, he was satisfied with his performance, particularly in the giant slalom event.
“I don’t think I’ve had a better (giant slalom) race than I had when I was at the Paralympics,” he said. “I had a bunch of people I respect come up to me and say I had a great run. It was a really cool experience.”
Even with the COVID restrictions and closed-loop system in Beijing, Enigl considered his time at the Games less stressful than world cup competition. By the time the Paralympic Games arrived, he was able to concentrate solely on skiing.
“I actually feel like I skied in Beijing better than I’ve ever skied because all I cared about was racing at that point,” he said. “There was no paperwork and ranking and what position you’re in. There was no stress, which was great.”
Now that the Games are behind him, Enigl plans to spend time with his wife, Heather, and their 11-year-old twins, Lucas and Lydia. He wants to do more free skiing but is looking forward to racing again next season.
“I’m going to be enjoying racing a lot more in the future,” he said.