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Saylor O’Brien Is Soaking In The Moment Of Making Her First National Team Roster

By Lela Moore | Aug. 23, 2022, 12:57 p.m. (ET)

Saylor O'Brien competes at the National Ability Center's Huntsman Cup in February 2022. (Photo: Dave Obzansky)

Saylor O’Brien spent most of her early life wanting to go very fast. Preferably on skis going straight downhill. She rebuffed her instructor’s directive to add turns into her ski runs in order to slow down — until she saw slalom racers for the first time. Then she knew she wanted to ski like that.

 

O’Brien’s daredevil ways paid off in May when she made the U.S. Paralympics Alpine Skiing National Team. She eventually hopes to apart of the team that competes in the Paralympic Winter Games Milano Cortina 2026, but is taking some time to savor this moment.

 

As a younger teenager, O’Brien, now 19, had her eyes on the 2022 Winter Paralympics in Beijing. She was in an ATV crash in 2019 that left her with burns on her legs that required surgery. She returned to skiing just months after the accident, but then the pandemic hit, along with a great deal of discouragement with her progress in the sport. She decided to step back and expand her goal to Italy.

 

“A lot of tears went into it,” she said of that decision.

 

Getting the email announcing her spot on the national team was also very emotional, O’Brien said, but showed “that I put in the work and I earned it,” she said.

 

Competing at the Paralympics has been a dream of O’Brien’s since she first began training for ski racing. She remembers watching the swimming events at the Olympics and Paralympics on television with her older sister, a swimmer, and then seeing the Winter Games a few years later.

 

“I was just completely blown away,” O’Brien said.

 

As she has trained, she has watched the Paralympic movement grow and thrive. “It’s grown so much,” she said. She credits social media, and athletes’ facility with different platforms where they can connect with fans, for the growth of the Paralympics over the last several years.

 

“We can use it to say, hey, there’s this really cool thing,” she said. O’Brien follows a number of young athletes with disabilities in different sports and hopes that her support helps them see a similar path. In particular, she said, she wants to attract more young women to skiing and other male-dominated sports.

 

She also works with young athletes through camps held by the National Ability Center in Park City, Utah, and talking to them about the opportunities available to them. “It’s really, really awesome to see these kids say, ‘I didn’t know that was an option for me,’” O’Brien said.

 

In 2018, O’Brien traveled with athletes from the National Ability Center to the Winter Games in PyeongChang. She helped start an adaptive ski program there. Despite a language barrier, she said, “you could just see on their faces that it was out of this world.”

 

O’Brien grew up in Utah in an athletic family of high achievers across a variety of sports. Her goals to compete at the elite level were nothing new, she said, as she was the fourth child behind a professional football player for the Detroit Lions, a Division I college swimmer and a college wrestler who is one of the best in Utah. And she has two younger brothers who also wrestle, in addition to playing other sports. Her three older siblings competed or still compete on college teams, and O’Brien admits to wishing that there was a competitive collegiate Para ski team so she could have that experience too. For the moment, though, she is all in on national team training.

 

Born with spina bifida, O’Brien initially competed on four-track skis.  After just a few months of training at the National Ability Center, beginning around age 10, she switched to mono-skiing, using a sit ski.

 

“Because of my disability,” she said, “It wouldn’t have been fair for me to be racing against the stand-up class.”

 

The switch required her to take a year and a half off to relearn how to ski, she said. She continues to train at the National Ability Center and will continue to do so as a national team member.

 

Her family moved to be closer to Park City for her training, O’Brien said, and currently lives in Woodland, about 20 minutes away.

 

In her very first super-G race in 2019, at a NorAm competition in Winter Park, Colorado, O’Brien walked away with a bronze medal. She considers that race a career highlight.

 

“That was a really cool moment for it being my first time, and I’m up there with these other cool chicks who had been doing it for a few years.”

 

Later that year, she won bronze in the slalom at the national championships, also held in Winter Park. In 2020, she was named Adaptive Female of the Year at the Utah Governor’s State of Sport Awards — she also won that award in 2018. She began the 2020 season, pre-pandemic, with a third place in the giant slalom at a NorAm in Mammoth Mountain, Calif.

 

When she returned to racing in 2021, she said she struggled in competitions, particularly in the giant slalom, which she DNF’d at the national championships. But at nationals, she said, “somehow I pulled it together for the last two slalom days.”

 

That season reinforced her decision to keep skiing, along with her invitation to the national team. Perseverance, she said, is a lesson she would impart to anyone hoping to follow in her footsteps.

 

O’Brien is excited to train with the national team for the next four years leading up to the Paralympics. She hopes to reach a few podiums in world cup and world championships races.

 

“My biggest goal,” she said, “is that I want to learn how to win, and also how to lose. And the process in between.”

Lela Moore

Lela Moore is a freelance contributor to USParaAlpineSkiing.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.