Junior Laurie Stephens is like any other ski nut who grew up in New England. She went on family ski vacations and weekends to resorts like Loon Mountain and Waterville Valley. She spent much of her time during the winter anticipating the weekend. And she was often one of the first on the chairlift and the last one off the slopes at the end of the day, with no stops for lunch. Except for a few differences. She was born with spina bifida. She skis using a monoski, which looks like a chair atop a single ski. And Stephens has pushed herself to become one of the greatest monoskiers in the world.
In March, Stephens, a member of U.S. Disabled Alpine Ski Team, will compete in the 2006 Paralympics in Torina, Italy. Would she like to win a medal? Well, actually, she says, "I think it would be great to sweep all the events there."
Known for being modest—the U.S. team says she should get a gold medal in humility for her "gracious handling of her relentless success"—Stephens isn't grandstanding. She took all the Disabled Alpine World Cup titles in 2005, including overall, slalom, giant slalom and super G in monoskiing. She won the first ever monoskier cross event at the Winter X-Games last January, grabbing 20 feet of air in one of the jumps.
Surprisingly, Stephens didn't start skiing until age 12. When she was younger, she participated in wheelchair racing and swimming, setting two U.S. records for disabled swimming while in high school in Wenham, Mass. "I always end up competing in whatever sports I've started," she says. "I think I still would be competitive and into sports even if I was completely able." Spina bifida, which can have varying degrees of severity, has only affected Stephens' ability to walk, which she can do, if necessary, with crutches. From Stephens' perspective, being disabled isn't a disadvantage to someone who hasn't known life any other way.
Training for the Paralympics requires six to eight hours a day at two-week -long training camps held once a month. Her training camps are paid for by sponsors, and take her to Austria, New Zealand, Colorado and other ski slopes around the world. A full-time student majoring in therapeutic recreation, she arranges with professors to send in homework online and to make up anything she misses. She is, however, taking this semester off to train for the Paralympics.
For Stephens, spina bifida has not so much hindered her as made her who she is today. She chose therapeutic recreation because she enjoys the combination of working with people with disabilities and playing sports. She hopes to move out west after graduation, where she can ski year-round and start a similar program that proves, as she did, that barriers are meant to be broken.Return to UNH Magazine Campus Currents