Oksana Masters celebrates in the Cross-Country Skiing - Women's 1.1km Sprint Final, Sitting at the PyeongChang 2018 Paralympic Games on March 14, 2018 in Pyeongchang-gun, South Korea.
When she was younger, Heather Galeotalanza went alpine skiing as much as possible, sometimes once a week. She regularly skied Sugarloaf Mountain in Maine and on the slopes in Vermont and New Hampshire. She also went backcountry skiing in remote parts of Washington.
However, Galeotalanza had to learn a new way of skiing after she sustained a spinal cord injury during a rock climbing accident in 2016. After that she began learning about Para Nordic skiing, and two years after her accident she tried sit skiing for the first time.
Instead of strapping a pair of skis to her feet, as she was accustomed to, Galeotalanza sat in a bucket seat attached to skis, called a sit ski. She then used ski poles that she held to propel herself across the snow.
“I had never used my body in that way — or my arms,” said Galeotalanza, who walks with the use of braces. “I was used to skiing with my legs, so I’d never skied in that manner before. But yeah, it was awesome.”
Para Nordic skiing is designed for athletes with a wide range of impairments, including spinal cord injuries, vision loss and limb impairments. The sport is separated into different classes for visually impaired skiing, standing skiing and sit sitting.
In each class, skiers with comparable impairments race against each other using techniques or equipment that are specific to their respective classes, such as sit skis, skiing with one or no poles or with assistance from a personal guide.
“One of our biggest barriers to participation is people don’t necessarily know that Para skiing exists at all, and if they do, they probably think of alpine (skiing),” said Eileen Carey, director of U.S. Paralympics Nordic Skiing.
Carey said most visually impaired skiers compete with help from individual guides who stay in front of them and direct them around the course with verbal cues.
Unlike some other Para sports, where athletes are tethered to their guides while running or ride tandem bicycles, visually impaired skiers have no physical contact with their guides. They do all of their work verbally.
Guides might let their respective skiers know about an obstacle on the course or if they’re approaching a group of other skiers. For the most part, though, guides don’t give a lot of detailed instructions during a race.
They instead repeat simple words or phrases — or chant the Nordic skiing cheer of “hup, hup, hup!” — so visually impaired skiers can follow the sound of their voices as they race around the course.
In some cases, a visually impaired skier might have enough sight to see the bright-colored bibs that every guide wears, allowing them to receive fewer verbal cues.
“Everybody’s different,” Carey said. “It’s a really cool teamwork dynamic, and it depends on the communication style and needs of the athlete and guide. They work out their own system to a point.”