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One Ski Is Still Better Than No Skis—Just Ask This Paralympian

One day in 1988 changed the trajectory of Sarah Will's life as a skier, but it didn't end it.

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This is the first installment of SKI’s profile series celebrating influential women in skiing. From trailblazers to educators to industry-leaders, the women profiled here have left an indelible mark on our sport. 

For Sarah Will, the first season back on the slopes following her accident was a whirlwind. After years of ski racing and freeskiing, she was now a complete beginner. Strapped into a monoski and tethered to a helper, Will fell often and her frustration level was high. She wondered if she had made the right choice to ski again. The sport that had offered her so much independence while growing up became all about dependence.

Eventually, with the help of friends and family and sheer perseverance, Will learned how to master a monoski, and then set her mind on racing again.

Every winter weekend of Will’s childhood was spent crowding into the family car with her five siblings and driving from Valley Cottage, N.Y., to Pico Peak in Vermont. She was in the race program at Pico, but she blew off training any time there was powder so she could bomb down the runs with her brother Peter. “We valued adventure over training and had so much joy from what we got to do on the mountain,” she says.

After ski racing at Green Mountain College, Will drove west to Aspen, Colo. In 1988, three months after arriving in the Rockies, Will had a ski accident, which left her paralyzed from the waist down. She was 24 years old.

While rehabbing in a hospital bed, her brother Brian returned from a ski trip to Winter Park, Colo. “He brought me a book by Hal O’Leary called ‘Bold Tracks’,” she says. Hal O’Leary is the founder of the National Sports Center for the Disabled in Winter Park, a program he designed to teach disabled athletes how to ski. The book showed Will that skiing with adaptive equipment was a possibility.

Sarah Will and Bold Tracks Magazine
(Photo: Sarah Will)

The following winter, Will and her brother planned a trip to the NSCD. Winter Park was hosting the World Championships for adaptive skiing during their visit, and for her first days in a monoski, Will had the opportunity to watch the fastest skiers in the world.

She vividly remembers watching an above-knee amputee and a monoskier from the U.S. and Australia riding up the lift together, with their country names emblazoned on the back of their jackets. “Right at that moment, I knew this was going to take some time,” she says. “And I knew that I was going to be in that jacket.”

Will made the U.S. Disabled Ski Team (now known as the Paralympic Alpine Ski Team) within a year of trying the sport. “I didn’t even know how to be disabled yet,” she says. But Will went on to compete in four Winter Paralympic Games, winning 13 medals (12 gold), plus a medal in Monoskier X Cross during the first adaptive X Games, to become the most decorated athlete in U.S. Paralympic Alpine Ski Team history. She was consequently inducted into both the U.S. Olympic and U.S. Ski and Snowboard Hall of Fame. Here, in her own words, Sarah Will shares her journey from skiing on two skis to learning how to ski on one.

While freeskiing at Aspen Highlands, my skis were caught in some dust on crust and I lost my balance.

I flipped backwards over a cat track crossing the hill. I landed on my shoulders, just shy of breaking my neck and felt lucky in that sense. I broke my back at L1, T12, which paralyzed me from the waist down, and my entire world was flipped upside-down.

As a person with a disability, the key for my independence is knowing when to ask for or refuse help.

I have a big sense of community, because honestly, there’s no way I could have done what I’ve done without the people who got me there. As a beginner, I was tethered until I could find my balance. Then my father or friends would venture out with me untethered, with little experience but a willingness to learn. We rode the bullwheel more than a few times getting off of the chair, but eventually we improved and had something to laugh or cry about later. I found movement, freedom, and independence through skiing—things I hadn’t felt since my accident.

Skiing is an inherently dangerous sport, and monoskiing is probably the most dangerous thing you can do.

You’re strapping on 20 pounds and wherever you fall, that load is coming with you. The first monoski I used consisted of a metal frame seated above a single ski with a shock and outriggers on my arms for balance. Later, when I was training for downhill or hitting jumps in the X Games, I constantly asked myself, ‘am I going to withstand the crash?’ because I still had to wheel around in a wheelchair and drive my van, and I did not want to lose what independence I had.

As soon as you find your balance point, then, as a ski racer, you can feel—even though you can’t physically feel—that a ski is a ski is a ski.

Often in the adaptive world, people concentrate more on the disability than on what is happening with the ski. Once I figured out that a ski is still a ski, I could relate, and it became less about being disabled and more about skiing. Adaptive ski equipment has come a long way, but you still have to go through the learning process.

Sarah Will big air
(Photo: Nathan Bilow)

When I got on the Paralympic Ski Team, I was told to “suck it up” and “keep up or be left behind.”

Just like when I was growing up as the youngest of six. There were so many personalities on the team. It took me a while to figure out how to handle my own space in a space of turmoil. The best thing I learned was how to remove myself from these situations. Sometimes it was about, ‘give me a minute, I’m going to catch the next chair.’ You can choose any chair you want and who gets to sit on it with you. It’s a metaphor for life.

I’ve been fighting the idea of being a leader in the sport and feeling like I don’t belong there.

Being in the public eye is about confidence, but it’s an uncomfortable realm. I spent a lot of time trying to say the right thing, to talk about sport rather than my personal beliefs. I tried not to be gruff, instead of what my mother believed, which was ‘be who you are, even if it’s rough around the edges.’

My new focus is on lift operation safety for adaptive skiers, because many lift operators have been told nothing about loading adaptive skiers.

When there is a disconnect between the lift operators and adaptive skiers, people can die, and it’s unnecessary. I’m advocating for new rules and regulations and working on educational videos. Think about the fact that once you leave the ground, you have nothing to stop you until you reach the top. Someone should always know where an adaptive skier is on a chairlift because anything can happen between when they get on to when they get off.

One of my favorite memories from ski racing is of Stevie Wonder playing the piano at the opening ceremony of the 2002 Salt Lake City Paralympic Games.

It was dumping in the mountains, but the rain was bouncing off Stevie’s piano and he just banged away. I was worried about too much snow on the downhill course, but I realized that Stevie Wonder, part of our movement, was here, and that the people around me were inspirations in their own right. I took a really good look around and appreciated all of the opportunities I was given—win, lose, or draw.

More Inspirational Reads

Meet the sit-skier who launched himself off of Corbet’s Couloir to show the world that he could
Team of amputees completes (likely) first disabled ski descent of descent of Denali
This skier didn’t let a life-changing accident derail her Olympic dreams