Catching the Paralympic spirit through sit-skiing

The Eyeopener's intrepid ski reporter Paul Karchut straps into a sit-ski, taking on a Paralympic challenge.
Calgary Eyeopener ski reporter Paul Karchut and sit skier Lorenda Bye hit the slopes at Canada Olympic Park. (Paul Karchut/CBC Calgary)

The Sochi Olympics are just a fleeting memory for most of us now. The barrage of journalists have packed up. The spotlight has shifted from Russia's Olympic endeavour to its involvement in the Ukrainian crisis.

But as the Games wrapped up, I got a quiet plea from a Calgarian asking that we give some coverage to the upcoming Paralympic Games that get under way in Sochi this Friday. In the weeks after each Olympics, the world's best disabled athletes in events from wheelchair curling to blind cross-country skiing touch down in the Olympic host city to compete.

  • Listen to the Eyeopener's ski reporter Paul Karchut take a spin on a sit ski.

Fred Bloom, a 32-year veteran volunteer from the Calgary chapter of the Canadian Association of Disabled Skiers (CADS), said the best way to understand what these athletes do is to try it myself. So I joined him along with a team of other volunteers at COP a few Fridays ago to take a crack at sit skiing.

The Calgary chapter has 375 volunteers and around 180 students that hit the slopes of COP every Friday, according to its ski and snowboard school director Laura Lee Crook.  That makes it the biggest disabled ski school in Canada. And while Paralympians have come out of the program, the focus is more on getting people who've been either born with a disability or who've faced one later in life onto the snow.

Bloom gained my trust by feeding me a couple of home baked cookies in the COP cafeteria, then moments later, I found myself getting strapped into a sit ski for the first time. The "bucket," as its called, is a very tight-fitting seat that attaches to a single ski. My first surprise was just how cinched in I had to be. As volunteers locked my legs and feet in place, they said it needed to fit like a tight racing ski boot – but around my entire lower body.

It has been a long time since I've felt so vulnerable on a bunny hill. I felt like an elephant balancing on a chair. The balance point was so fine as I sat on top of that singular ski. All the way down the slope, I had the assistance of sit skier Lorinda Bye. Back in the summer of 2009, a tree fell on her tent during a camping trip and with that random accident, Lorinda became a paraplegic.

As a once avid snowboarder, getting back onto the snow has been really important to her. "I came out one Saturday afternoon and tried it and loved it. So the next winter I started taking lessons and progressed from there."  

It's stories like Bye's that keep the volunteers coming back. Laura Lee Crook, who's been with CADS since its early days in the 1970s, says winter sport is so amazing for the disabled because, with a bit of training, skiers can hit the slopes with their friends again.

"You've finally got one thing where gravity is working for you. Instead of pulling you down or making you slip on the snow when you're wheeling your chair about, you get on the the snow and you get that equalization back again. You no longer have a disability. You just ski differently."

Getting strapped into a sit ski was a very humbling experience – both for how challenging it was and for how much help I needed to get back up when I fell over (which happened a lot). But it was also amazing to see the strong team of volunteers so committed to getting the those with a disability back on the slopes.