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Paralympian in Aspen: No obstacle too great

ASPEN – When Chris Slavin starts down Racer’s Edge at Tiehack Sunday, she will face many challenges: She has ski raced competitively for just two seasons; it’s her first-ever downhill competition; and the snow conditions are far from perfect.

But for Slavin, it would seem those obstacles pale in comparison to the challenges she’s faced throughout her life.

“Well, I don’t know about that,” she said. “It’s just what it is. I am actually lucky in so many ways.”

A Massachusetts native, Slavin was born with a genetic bone disorder that meant she had to walk with braces and forearm crutches. For her, it was just the way it was.

“I was just raised to do what everyone did,” said the 41-year-old Slavin. “I guess I didn’t know any different; they didn’t have adaptive sports back then.”

Embracing her disability – or actually not even seeing herself as disabled – Slavin did what all the kids did, including her three siblings. She played baseball, went nordic skiing and “just played sports … in my own way.”

Later, as an adult, she took up adaptive, stand-up snowboarding. In this sport, the sky was the limit.

“It was so new, so cutting-edge,” Slavin said, adding that more than anything, she fell in love with the “snowboard culture.” “I was a snowboarder. I loved everything about it … it was so unique and so filled with possibility.”

But in 2007, everything changed. During a competition at Northstar at Tahoe – her first-ever race “out West” – Slavin crashed. The accident, which would have had the same end result regardless of her bone condition, left her paralyzed from the waist down.

“It’s kind of funny … the doctors came in when I was in ICU and said, ‘You never seemed afraid; you never asked if you were going to be paralyzed forever.’ I guess it’s because I wasn’t afraid,” she said. “Maybe my condition made me realize I had to just keep moving ahead? I don’t know. All I know is that I just told them I’d be back on the mountain next year.”

And she was, though she soon realized that competing in the park and pipe – in her monoski – might not work out.

“It was truly a different ballgame in a monoski,” she said, explaining why she switched disciplines to become a monoski racer, competing in slalom, giant slalom, super G and, now, downhill. “I loved it, but I’m a competitive person. I loved the snowboard culture, but I wanted to be competitive.

“Switching sports, to me, was the equivalent of joining the establishment. But in the end, it was the right decision.”

Of course the road ahead was not so straightforward. A serious illness related to her genetic disorder sidelined her for two years.

And the following year, just a few weeks into the season, misfortune struck yet again. A car accident left her in a coma and on a ventilator, fighting for survival.

Needless to say, Slavin didn’t give up. In fact, she set her sights higher – the 2014 Paralympic Games.

“When I came out of all that, I said to myself, ‘If I want to make the Paralympics, I’ve got to do this now,'” she said, with a grin that speaks volumes.

So when the opportunity to train for the U.S. Paralympic Team came up, she jumped right in. The only challenge, she said, was figuring out how to get to Aspen.

According to Slavin, the Aspen Valley Ski and Snowboard Club’s Paralympic Development Program is one of the best in the country, and one of the top female monoskiers trains here. There was no other choice, in Slavin’s mind.

But moving meant leaving behind so much – her hometown of Ipswich, Mass.., her home ski hill at Loon Mountain, N.H., and her livelihood tutoring kids with serious genetic and developmental disabilities.

But with the help of an anonymous donor who paid for her training fees, contributions from others and a lot of hard work (she thought at one point she might have to go home, as funds were running so low), Slavin began training – five days a week – in Aspen as a member of the program. Sunday through Wednesday, her teammates, along with a total of 35 American and 11 international racers, will be competing at Tiehack in the 2012 U.S. Adaptive Alpine National Championships.

It is a race Slavin looks forward to, as the path to the starting gate has taught her so much. Foremost, she said, is that ski racing alone is not enough to make her happy.

“I instantly fell in love with Aspen, and I loved the training. But I wasn’t totally happy,” she said, acknowledging that perhaps the challenges she’s faced in life have made her more aware of all facets of life. “And one day, by chance, I met up with a group of AVSC kids and it clicked – that is what I needed.”

In fact, Slavin has spent most of her recent “free skiing” Saturdays on the hill with groups of kids from the club. She said the experience has helped her grow so much as a skier and a person.

“I was clear that this is what I needed to do with Saturdays,” she said, the expression on her face making it so clear how deeply she cares for others. “They feed my soul.”

The second thing this winter’s experience has taught her is just how important being part of a team really is – to her, her fellow athletes and the Aspen community.

“Everyone … the people I know on the bus, the people I know on the mountain … everyone is part of my journey,” she said. “It is such an amazing feeling.”

In fact, her one hope for these races – whether she wins or loses and whether the course holds up to the spring conditions or not – is that everyone comes away with a lesson learned.

“First, I want people to know life goes on,” she said. “Second, I want people to realize that we’re all part of the same team.

“I think our AVSC team is going to do really well. And I want to share that, just like the hockey team that wins the state championship or the nordic racer that comes in first, we are on the same team.

“We did it. We all win.”

jmcgovern@aspentimes.com


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