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Para Sport 101: Sit Skiing vs Standing Skiing vs Visually Impaired Skiing

By Alex Abrams | Nov. 02, 2020, 6:07 p.m. (ET)

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.”

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)

Eileen Carey

Standing skiers, meanwhile tend to have upper-limb impairments, an amputation that requires them to wear a prosthetic leg or a mobility impairment that impacts stability.

Some standing skiers might have no hands, so they’ll ski without ski poles. In other instances, standing skiers will have an impaired arm fixed to their body during a race and use their other arm to hold a ski pole.

Carey said standing skiers and visually impaired skiers use the same equipment as Olympic Nordic skiers. Sit skiers, on the other hand, need the specialized sit skis because they have impairments that affect their legs, such as spinal cord injuries.

Erin Martin did some Nordic skiing as a kid growing up in South Dakota, but she preferred downhill skiing. Galeotalanza introduced Martin, who sustained a T4 spinal cord injury during a rock climbing accident in 2013, to Nordic sit sitting.

Martin, who uses a wheelchair to get around, has little to no control of her torso. She skis by strapping herself into a bucket seat attached to Nordic skis and using her arms and back to propel herself with ski poles.

“Of the positions that Nordic sit skiers are in, my position is the most supportive because I have less function,” Martin said. “So there is definitely some balance (issues) and figuring out how to shift my weight and move my body in ways that keeps me upright and moves the ski where I want it to go. But my bucket puts me in a position where I’m really relatively pretty stable.”

Martin said her triceps and back muscles will be sore after a day of sit skiing. She has been training with Galeotalanza with the hope of someday qualifying for the Paralympics.

“I have always been really motivated and driven by goals,” Martin said. “And so to be participating in an activity that gives me such an exciting goal to work toward has really given my life a lot of focus and purpose and fulfillment.”

Alex Abrams

Alex Abrams has written about Olympic and Paralympic sports for more than 15 years, including as a reporter for major newspapers in Florida, Arkansas and Oklahoma. He is a freelance contributor to USParaNordic.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.