Spencer Wood competes at the Paralympic Winter Games Beijing 2022. (Photo: Joe Kusumoto)
Spencer Wood plans to spend the next four years relearning to ski.
That’s an unusual goal for someone who first learned to ski as a toddler, much less a two-time Paralympic alpine skier.
But Wood believes that “rebuilding the tree,” as he puts it — or focusing on basics — will take the focus off the forest, so to speak.
That forest is made up of world championships, world cups and, of course, the Paralympic Winter Games Milano Cortina 2026. Wood says he plans to compete for a spot on the U.S. alpine team for the Games “as long as my body is healthy and strong.” But first, he’s focused on refining his technique.
Wood made his first Paralympic team as a 21-year-old in 2018. The PyeongChang Games were also his first international competition.
“I was fairly new to the sport,” the native of Pittsfield, Vermont, said. “I didn’t have nearly the grip on the craft of alpine skiing that I do now.”
He finished 25th in the giant slalom and did not make it off the mountain in the slalom.
Four years later, Wood said he developed a “a fiery passion” for the speed races and added the downhill and super-G to his repertoire. “It’s pretty addicting,” he said of conquering the speed events.
At the world championships this past January, Wood placed 14th in the downhill, 17th in the super combined, 18th in the super-G and 28th in the giant slalom. And in Beijing, he finished 12th in the super-G and 14th in both the super combined and the slalom.
Wood credits working with a sports psychologist for helping him go from wide-eyed Paralympic rookie to speed demon. His voice caught when he spoke about the impact of his sports psychology team at the Olympic & Paralympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colorado, where he currently lives and trains. His doctors, he said, are moving on, and he is not ready. He described working with his team on breath training — changing the cadence of his breathing depending on where he is in training.
“So if you’re trying to rev up to get into the course, or if you’re trying to cool down after a course so you can do another run,” he said.
Along with his close friend and teammate Thomas Walsh, whom he met early in his Paralympic training in Colorado, Wood said he would go into sessions with the psychologists and come out “feeling like the man, like beating our chests, feeling a hundred percent ready to take down the world. Just the best energy to have going into the gate.”
Another change for Wood between his Paralympic experiences was his classification. When he first began his Paralympic training, he received a classification of LW4, which was the same as Walsh.
“Tom and I are very different skiers,” he said, “and we had the same (classification).”
Wood had a stroke in utero and is affected by hemiplegia on his right side. But his first classification only accounted for his right ankle, which has limited mobility, and until 2019 he raced other athletes, like Walsh, who had lost the use of one leg.
“They didn’t take into account my upper arm extremity,” Wood said. “I was just getting rocked.”
After his reclassification as LW6/8-2, which does account for his right arm impairment, Wood said the sport felt equitable for him at last.
“It’s nice to feel like I have a seat at the table,” he said.
Wood is the son and grandson of skiers, and his parents were ski instructors, so it’s no surprise that Wood grew up on skis. His parents did not tell him about his disability until he was in fourth grade, when he began to realize that he was as athletically capable as his friends and teammates but could not keep up with them on foot or on a bicycle. At that point, he said, the news made little impact on him; he continued besting his friends at the gym where, he said, “I was the strongest kid by far.”
Skiing, he said, appeals to him beyond simply being the sport he knows almost intuitively because it is an individual sport that he performs while a member of a team.
“Kobe Bryant once said that there is an M-E in ‘team,’” Wood said.
Wood has adopted that saying as a personal philosophy. He said that over the last year, and since Beijing, the dynamic among his Team USA teammates has changed for the better as they have improved their communication as a group as they learned to connect better with each other.
Wood said that he hopes his tighter-knit team will inspire younger skiers to enter developmental programs, an area he thinks Team USA needs to put more of its attention.
“I think there’s a lot more than people see when they think about alpine skiing,” he said. “The beautiful thing about alpine skiing is, it doesn’t matter the severity of your disability. Whether you’re tethered, or you’re actively using outriggers, you can go skiing. It’s the ultimate freedom roller coaster.”