“Hey, there’s Sam! Hey, Sam! Sam, hi!”
The man below us, pausing after cranking down the fall line using outriggers and a single ski, looked up at the lift where my fourth-grader waved madly. “No,” he said pleasantly. “Not Sam.”
Sam Ferguson was the paraplegic skier we had seen at the Aspen opening of the latest Warren Miller film, “Journey,” which shows him skiing Highlands Bowl. My older son got to meet Sam in the lobby that night; my first-grader longed to, but was immobilized by shyness.
Today, disabled athletes are legion. In 1982, when Hugh Herr, at 17 already one of the best rock climbers on the East Coast, became lost in a storm for three days on Mount Washington, New Hampshire, and lost both his feet to frostbite, he lay wishing that another amputee, especially an active one, would visit him.
Five years later, Hugh himself visited Giles Thompson, 16, who’d lost his feet after the Mount Hood tragedy that killed nine. Hugh had spent hours preparing “he wanted to look impeccable, his gait steady and his artificial legs “human-like,” with socks and shoes, and no screws sticking out.
Giles’ thin, tense face, even all the get-well cards tacked on the wall, reminded Hugh startlingly of himself. Given only limited time, both youths struggled to speak. Hugh left thinking he had done no good, but later read an article in which Giles said his visit was the most encouraging moment of all.
These days a young Hugh or Giles wouldn’t have to look far for role models. One of my sons’ favorite mountain-biking videos contains film of two paraplegic bikers, jumping huge gaps on their four-wheelers.
“Mom, come look, this guy’s so rad!” the boys exhort, adding absently, “He’s paralyzed.” Marathoners roll across finish lines, wheelchair basketball games thrive, a young surfing champion loses an arm and gets back on her board. I saw a blind skier at Buttermilk the other day, and was surprised only by how unsurprising it has become.
Says Warren Macdonald, a double above-knee amputee, soon to leave for an expedition to Antarctica, “Sure, having family and medical support is one thing, but what you really want to see is what someone else has been able to do in a similar situation. It raises the bar on what expectations you set yourself, and can help to pull you out of that victim state.
“I’m not saying everyone with a disability should go out and climb mountains, but the fact that some of us are may help kick start somebody into setting a goal, period, no matter how small.”
Three weeks ago I heard Erik Weihenmayer, the blind climber who summited Everest, speak. Erik is extremely charismatic and comedic. He told with amusement of entering an auditorium behind two young men, and overhearing one say, “I hope this guy isn’t boring.” The other said, “It won’t matter, we can just leave, he’ll never know!” Erik also described a post-Everest party where a banner read: “Congratulations: Sherman Bull, oldest man ever to climb Everest/Erik Weihenmayer, blindest man ever to climb Everest.”
I was also sitting close enough to see the tears glint in his eyes when he described the moment he heard his friend Chris Morris say: “Big E, I think you’re about to stand on top of the world.”
It used to be that a “supergimp” was an anomaly of anomalies, an example both encouraging and even in some ways discouraging to less vigorous peers. Now, as Erik said after the show, with satisfaction, “It’s a gimp explosion. No other way to put it.”
And a landscape of difference as normalcy. A generation is growing up with athletic heroes of every configuration.
My sons later met the skier-who-wasn’t-Sam. His name is Dennis, and he suffered quite kindly the cloying attentions of boys who are just crazy about rad athletes.
Alison Osius lives in Carbondale and can be reached at email@example.com (write GSPI as subject heading).
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