Doctors have told Joy Rondeau to take it easy, but she admitted she’s not very good at following their advice.
After Rondeau got a spinal fusion at age 19, a doctor insisted she had to be careful with how she treated her body.
Rondeau was later told she should probably “back off” from Para Nordic skiing after she suffered nerve damage in one of her elbows prior to the Paralympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018.
Rondeau refused to take a break, though. She wasn’t about to miss competing in her first Winter Paralympics.
“It’s more like a quality-of-life thing,” Rondeau said. “Like if this is what gives my life purpose and meaning and excites me, then that’s what I’m going to do as long as I can do it.”
Rondeau, 32, was born with hereditary spastic paraplegia, a group of inherited neurological disorders that result in difficult walking because of muscle weakness and tightness in the legs.
Para Nordic skiing hasn’t just improved Rondeau’s quality of life. It has become her way of life since her coach at the National Sports Center for the Disabled in Colorado encouraged her to try the sport at age 26.
“I definitely get along better in my sit ski than I do walking,” Rondeau said, laughing.
Rondeau finished 14th in the 6-kilometer biathlon and 19th in the 5-kilometer cross-country competition at the 2018 Winter Paralympics. She’s training full-time in the hopes of qualifying for the Beijing 2022 Paralympic Winter Games.
Rondeau was named to the U.S. Paralympics Nordic Skiing national development team for the 2020-21 season.
She recently arrived in Bozeman, Montana, to take part in a four-month residency program that’s a collaboration between U.S. Paralympics Nordic Skiing and Crosscut Mountain Sports Center.
“I want to do the best that I can do. That’s the worst thing, is finishing a race and being like I could have pushed myself harder,” Rondeau said. “(It’s a feeling of) I could’ve done this, instead of comparing yourself like I should’ve beat this person.
“It’s more like I want to finish a race and say, ‘I did my best. I worked my butt off, and I know that.’”
Rondeau said her parents didn’t know she was disabled until she was 3 and still unable to walk like her siblings. Her parents knew that was unusual, so they took her to a doctor.
Rondeau was initially diagnosed with cerebral palsy, which is a group of disorders that affects a person’s ability to move and maintain balance. When she was a teenager, she learned she actually has hereditary spastic paraplegia, which has symptoms similar to cerebral palsy.
As Rondeau put it, her brain doesn’t tell the nerves in her legs what to do.
“So I’ll like tell my legs to take a step, and it will kind of do a different thing,” she said.
Rondeau started alpine skiing at age 8 through the National Sports Center for the Disabled. She’d get a ride to Winter Park, Colorado, every week and ski recreationally.
Years later, Mark Birdseye, her coach at the National Sports Center for the Disabled, thought Rondeau might enjoy Para Nordic skiing. She had taken a break from alpine, and he encouraged her to try Nordic.
“He sent me all of these videos, and I was like that just looks like a horrible thing. I do not want to try that,” Rondeau said. “And then for some reason I was like I’m going to try it anyway, and the endorphins are super addictive.”
What did she love about Nordic skiing?
“I think part of it is my coach in alpine (skiing), when I would get cold, like complain about being too cold, she would tell me to ski uphill to warm myself up,” Rondeau said. “And now that’s all I do for a living.”
Rondeau started competing in Nordic skiing in 2016, and she raced in her first world cup event that year in Finsterau, Germany.
Along the way, Nordic skiing has helped Rondeau deal with her condition — even though she has suffered multiple ski injuries.
“I was in a lot of pain from the spinal fusion that I got when I was younger, and it helped strengthen my back and my core and it took away a lot of the physical pain that I had,” Rondeau said.
“So that’s kind of one of the reasons that I keep doing it because I can definitely tell I’m a much happier person. It destroys my body. It also helps it.”