Apres Ski

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I never thought I’d have to lose a leg to become athletic, but that’s how it happened after a new friend, a recent amputee herself, asked me if I’d like to go skiing.

“What? And break my one and only leg?” What is she, a masochist? I wondered. That was before I learned masochism is a prerequisite for being an athlete.

“Cale, most people break a leg because they cross their tips. We can’t do that.” I forgave her good attitude; however, I saw I had to be more sophisticated in my excuses.

“Skiing is an elitist sport,” I sniffed. “You have to have money.”

“No. It’s free if you’re disabled,” she offered.

“But I don’t know how,” I said like the stubborn coward I was.

 “They teach you,” she said deftly.

“Where am I supposed to get the equipment?” I really didn’t want an answer. . I had cracked my head open once on the sloped driveway aside my house trying out a pair of skis.

“They loan it!” she added, “Free!”, and we both recognized we’d been through a major life crisis, her having all the right answers to both of our excuses.

After the success of gracefully mastering crutches, I was soon to be humiliated by both the laws of physics and the athletic challenge of learning to ski with a body still a stranger to me.

Inside her car outside the lodge, my new friend and I sat for several hours telling our stories. I told her, “When I was in high school I was a ‘hoodsie.’ The most athletic thing I ever did was run — and that was from the cops.” I didn’t mention I had been a bowler, since I only did it to wear the shoes and be ogled by the boys. She was a swimmer, played tennis and lacrosse. She had also skied before.

When we entered the lodge, I felt like Ann Boleyn heading for my beheading. Then I saw a gathering of guys lounging at the fireplace drinking Schnapps and hot chocolate. Social life, now that I could relate to. Jane steered me away and took me to the handicap skier station where we stood on platforms, sat on benches, and by the time I got all my gear, I was exhausted. “Okay. Let’s hit the bar,” I said cheerily. Instead we were led out into the frigid air to the hilltop. Unlike most ski resorts, Haystack in Vermont is unusual in that you ski from top to bottom before taking your first lift back to the hilltop. Waiting at the top, our teacher, Fran, a large 30-something three-tracker, instructed us on how to put on our skis and take up our outriggers.

Outriggers are crutch-like ski poles with 12” ski tips at the bottoms that ride over the snow, making a platform of three skis instead of two, thus the expression three-tracker. Once you become a really good skier like Fran, you ski with your one leg and use the outriggers to balance every once in a while. That first day, though, three skis weren’t enough.

In the two years I had been an amputee, I had never worn pants. My vanity required long dresses which flared at the waist so I could also hide my loss of a hip. With these ski pants I felt like a dorky stork standing over the ski as I readied to put my foot into the binding. My balance was good, but it did call for the earth to stand still.

With my crutches gingerly gripping the snow, I leaned down. The ski flew backwards, and I forward. Fran caught me right in time from falling flat on my face. She held me around the waist while I got the ski on. I stood like a perturbed flamingo while Fran handed me the outriggers. Then the principles of friction vs. sliding demonstrated themselves. The first thing I did was treat the outrigger like a crutch and put some weight on it. Like a banana peel it slid out from beneath me. I was on my butt before my ski had even moved. I was stunned. Fran didn’t offer to help me up. I hardly had strength to lift myself, let alone the fool outrigger at the same time.

Oh, my. I was most unhappy, and the cheerfulness around me made my mood more foul. My friend was already several hundred feet down the hill, a natural kinesthetic learner. “You can do it, Cale,” someone gushed. Right. Each time I tried to get up, the ski slipped downhill, me laying on its tail.

“Lay your ski across the fall line,” yelled Fran. The fall line she had explained earlier was the path a ball would take if dropped down the hill. Fran side-slipped down to me, stopped my slide, and then lifted my ski — with my leg attached — up into the air, turned me around on my back and headed my ski across the slope. “You want to get up with your ski across the fall line and use the uphill outrigger to push up off the ground,” she said.

“No, I don’t. I want to go in and have some hot chocolate now,” I grumbled to myself. My crutches, however, were 10 feet above me, my ski having slipped that far down the hill as I was trying to get up. I knew Sergeant Fran would never bring them down to me. I was in for the duration. Her duration.

The day was a nightmare. My ski pants kept falling off me, and I couldn’t pull them up without letting go of the outrigger and falling down myself. Those moments when I would get set upright, point downhill and start to get some speed, I’d instinctively lean back to keep the ski from going further down hill. Boom. Skiing taught me another law of physics: if you lean back, the ski goes forward faster; if you don’t keep your weight centered, you’re down.

“Bend your knee,” she instructed, and I looked down to see what part of my body my knee might be.

The concept of turning was never introduced that day because I used up a flotilla of instructors trying to teach me to merely stay up. I could hear voices from uphill calling, “Kyle. Get UP!” and I thought, I’m glad I’m not this Kyle guy because I gotta sit down and rest. When I realized they were actually yelling at me, I was genuinely puzzled. Why rush to get up if I’m just going to fall down again ?

When I finally got to the bottom of the hill, I collapsed in relief and created a snow angel. I didn’t care if I embarrassed the other gimps. When I looked up into the blue sky, I saw a circle of trees, and realized I wasn’t even cold. I was exhilarated. I looked uphill to see how far I’d come, and I felt a bolt of happiness. It wasn’t that hard –as long as I didn’t have to do it again real soon.

However, I was subsequently introduced to the converse of Newton’s Law of Gravity: What goes down must come up again. At Haystack you skied down and took a T-bar up. A T-bar is a rope tow with an iron piece shaped like an upside down “T”. A skier holds onto the stem with one hand, tucking the “T” under her butt, and is towed to the top.

This assumes you have not only balance and strength in your leg, but a butt. No one made the connection that my pants were falling off because, not only had I lost a leg, but half my derriere. So no one could figure out why I was such a terrible spaz on the T-bar. It took the rest of the day to get me up it. Eventually one of the instructors skied me between his legs, his butt on the T, and my back leaning against him. If I get to the top, I asked him, can I stay there? He offered to buy me that hot chocolate himself. My hero!

The thing that was most exciting about that first day of skiing was that it ended. I came a few times more that winter, even conquering the T-bar, and by my last lesson could traverse across the slope and stay up. The next year I discovered paradise at Sunapee, New Hampshire, where they had a chairlift. It would take at least one more season before I was strong enough to stand up from a sitting position, balance my body over the center of the ski, and turn with enough finesse to completely control my speed.

In five years I would be competing regionally and nationally, and in 1979 become the Women’s National Three-Track Champion. In 1980 I represented my country in Olympic Games for Disabled in Norway. All that for a hot chocolate après ski?

All that because skiing gave my body back to me.

Back to excerpts from “Have Crutch Will Travel”

and we both recognized we’d been through a major life crisis, her having all the right answers to both of our excuses.

After the success of gracefully mastering crutches, I was soon to be humiliated by both the laws of physics and the athletic challenge of learning to ski with a body still a stranger to me.

Inside her car outside the lodge, my new friend and I sat for several hours telling our stories. I told her, “When I was in high school I was a ‘hoodsie.’ The most athletic thing I ever did was run — and that was from the cops.” I didn’t mention I had been a bowler, since I only did it to wear the shoes and be ogled by the boys. She was a swimmer, played tennis and lacrosse. She had also skied before.

When we entered the lodge, I felt like Ann Boleyn heading for my beheading. Then I saw a gathering of guys lounging at the fireplace drinking Schnapps and hot chocolate. Social life, now that I could relate to. Jane steered me away and took me to the handicap skier station where we stood on platforms, sat on benches, and by the time I got all my gear, I was exhausted. “Okay. Let’s hit the bar,” I said cheerily. Instead we were led out into the frigid air to the hilltop. Unlike most ski resorts, Haystack in Vermont is unusual in that you ski from top to bottom before taking your first lift back to the hilltop. Waiting at the top, our teacher, Fran, a large 30-something three-tracker, instructed us on how to put on our skis and take up our outriggers.

Outriggers are crutch-like ski poles with 12” ski tips at the bottoms that ride over the snow, making a platform of three skis instead of two, thus the expression three-tracker. Once you become a really good skier like Fran, you ski with your one leg and use the outriggers to balance every once in a while. That first day, though, three skis weren’t enough.

In the two years I had been an amputee, I had never worn pants. My vanity required long dresses which flared at the waist so I could also hide my loss of a hip. With these ski pants I felt like a dorky stork standing over the ski as I readied to put my foot into the binding. My balance was good, but it did call for the earth to stand still.

With my crutches gingerly gripping the snow, I leaned down. The ski flew backwards, and I forward. Fran caught me right in time from falling flat on my face. She held me around the waist while I got the ski on. I stood like a perturbed flamingo while Fran handed me the outriggers. Then the principles of friction vs. sliding demonstrated themselves. The first thing I did was treat the outrigger like a crutch and put some weight on it. Like a banana peel it slid out from beneath me. I was on my butt before my ski had even moved. I was stunned. Fran didn’t offer to help me up. I hardly had strength to lift myself, let alone the fool outrigger at the same time.

Oh, my. I was most unhappy, and the cheerfulness around me made my mood more foul. My friend was already several hundred feet down the hill, a natural kinesthetic learner. “You can do it, Cale,” someone gushed. Right. Each time I tried to get up, the ski slipped downhill, me laying on its tail.

“Lay your ski across the fall line,” yelled Fran. The fall line she had explained earlier was the path a ball would take if dropped down the hill. Fran side-slipped down to me, stopped my slide, and then lifted my ski — with my leg attached — up into the air, turned me around on my back and headed my ski across the slope. “You want to get up with your ski across the fall line and use the uphill outrigger to push up off the ground,” she said.

“No, I don’t. I want to go in and have some hot chocolate now,” I grumbled to myself. My crutches, however, were 10 feet above me, my ski having slipped that far down the hill as I was trying to get up. I knew Sergeant Fran would never bring them down to me. I was in for the duration. Her duration.

The day was a nightmare. My ski pants kept falling off me, and I couldn’t pull them up without letting go of the outrigger and falling down myself. Those moments when I would get set upright, point downhill and start to get some speed, I’d instinctively lean back to keep the ski from going further down hill. Boom. Skiing taught me another law of physics: if you lean back, the ski goes forward faster; if you don’t keep your weight centered, you’re down.

“Bend your knee,” she instructed, and I looked down to see what part of my body my knee might be.

The concept of turning was never introduced that day because I used up a flotilla of instructors trying to teach me to merely stay up. I could hear voices from uphill calling, “Kyle. Get UP!” and I thought, I’m glad I’m not this Kyle guy because I gotta sit down and rest. When I realized they were actually yelling at me, I was genuinely puzzled. Why rush to get up if I’m just going to fall down again ?

When I finally got to the bottom of the hill, I collapsed in relief and created a snow angel. I didn’t care if I embarrassed the other gimps. When I looked up into the blue sky, I saw a circle of trees, and realized I wasn’t even cold. I was exhilarated. I looked uphill to see how far I’d come, and I felt a bolt of happiness. It wasn’t that hard –as long as I didn’t have to do it again real soon.

However, I was subsequently introduced to the converse of Newton’s Law of Gravity: What goes down must come up again. At Haystack you skied down and took a T-bar up. A T-bar is a rope tow with an iron piece shaped like an upside down “T”. A skier holds onto the stem with one hand, tucking the “T” under her butt, and is towed to the top.

This assumes you have not only balance and strength in your leg, but a butt. No one made the connection that my pants were falling off because, not only had I lost a leg, but half my derriere. So no one could figure out why I was such a terrible spaz on the T-bar. It took the rest of the day to get me up it. Eventually one of the instructors skied me between his legs, his butt on the T, and my back leaning against him. If I get to the top, I asked him, can I stay there? He offered to buy me that hot chocolate himself. My hero!

The thing that was most exciting about that first day of skiing was that it ended. I came a few times more that winter, even conquering the T-bar, and by my last lesson could traverse across the slope and stay up. The next year I discovered paradise at Sunapee, New Hampshire, where they had a chairlift. It would take at least one more season before I was strong enough to stand up from a sitting position, balance my body over the center of the ski, and turn with enough finesse to completely control my speed.

In five years I would be competing regionally and nationally, and in 1979 become the Women’s National Three-Track Champion. In 1980 I represented my country in Olympic Games for Disabled in Norway. All that for a hot chocolate après ski?

All that because skiing gave my body back to me.

Back to excerpts from “Have Crutch Will Travel”