Paralympian headed to Pyeongchang prefers the downhill event

Calgary paralympian Kurt Oatway talks about the challenges and the rewards of being a sit-skier aiming for the podium in Pyeongchang, South Korea.

'It's the biggest, the baddest and the fastest' says Kurt Oatway

Kurt Oatway will compete for Canada at the 2018 Paralympics in Peonchang, South Korea. (CBC News)

Kurt Oatway is a sit-skier on the Canadian Paralympic team. He spoke to The Homestretch prior to departing for South Korea to compete in the 2018 Paralympics in Pyeongchang.

Q: How did you get started in sit-skiing?

A: I started sit-skiing in March of 2010.  I was a skier all my life. Started skiing at five. Started racing at six, in the Nancy Greene program.

I broke my back in 2007, which left me partially paralyzed — fully paralyzed below the knee and partially paralyzed above the knee.

I finished my degree in the first semester of 2009-2010 and in February/March, we were sitting around watching the [Vancouver] Olympics and by extension the Paralympics, and being a skier, and watching all those venues, I kind of made the decision that I had to at least start skiing again.

When I started skiing again, my goal was just to do it — just to  ski. And after I started, I realized you know — let's try racing for a little bit and see how that goes.

Q: How did you injure your back?

A: I was attending University of Saskatchewan and we were in Utah on a field [research trip], and I got it in my head — as a 23 year old kid who thinks he knows everything — [that I was] going to climb up there and get some pictures and look at stuff.

I got all the way up the south window in Arches National Park, got to the lip to pull myself over, [when] I lost my hand hold, and slipped and fell 12 meters, landed on my feet, kind of accordianed at the bottom — and ended up with an incomplete spinal cord fracture.

Q: What was the recovery process like?

A: Lots of physiotherapy. Rehab. Kind of what you'd expect, coming back from a traumatic injury. I'd like to think I handled it well. But what it comes down to is not giving up and make a goal and keep moving forward.

Q: How long did it take to get competitive enough and comfortable enough on the sit-ski?

A: The first time I tried to sit-ski was in late march 2010. In 2011, I competed for Saskatchewan in the Canada Winter Games. In early 2013, I made the team — the World Cup Team. I travelled with them, and qualified for the games.

So in less than three full seasons, right around three full seasons of sit-skiing, I was able to qualify for Paralympics and make the team.

Q: Is it difficult to learn to balance going around those gates?

A: A sit-ski — if you can imagine — is if you pictured a wheelchair with no wheels, With either a downhill mountain bike or a motocross shock underneath it attached to a ski. The shock's there to act as our knees to absorb the bumps and undulations and the train. As far as bounce goes, the outriggers you have in your hands are similar to ski poles, for the function — you use them for balance to initiate into and come out of a turn, but you're not supposed to rely too much on them by pressing on them.

I'm a fairly high functioning para — I have one of the smallest factors in the sport — so the way I balance on a sit-ski will be a little different than someone who is say a T5 fracture.  If they're paralyzed from the chest down or armpits down, then they do all their motions and balance primarily with their head and shoulder and arms.

Whereas the lower your functionality goes — the more you have — kind of transitions into your core and your hips.

Q: What's your favourite event?

A: The downhill.

Q: Why?

A: It's the biggest, the baddest and the fastest.

Q: What difference has the Paralympics made in your life?

A: Paralympics has given me goals to achieve. It's helped me get past being the able-bodied 23-year-old fully functional human to now having a disability that I'll have for the rest of my life. It helped me come to terms with that, and to realize it's not the end. There's more after — and pretty much whatever you want to do.

With files from The Homestretch