There Is No Place Like Home

Ever wanted to click your ruby red slippers together three times to get back home?  I sure did.  After months on the road traveling to far-away, beautiful places for training and racing all I could think about was being back home.  I made one of the most difficult decisions in my career a few weeks ago.  With a 700-point lead in the Overall World Cup standings I decided to follow my heart and stay home.

Our season began back in August with our opening World Cup events in Australia and New Zealand.  I favor the icy, hard conditions and won seven out of the seven World Cup races Down Under.  A continuous winning streak I had never experienced but knew deep in my heart simply could not continue because that is not the nature of ski racing.  From there things went “downhill” and try as I might to get back on top of the podium again, I made mistakes, crashed and did not finish as many races as I had consecutively won.  All the while my longing for home, family and friends was mounting until I made that difficult decision – go on the road for 22 World Cup races in five different countries over a two month period and race every race BEFORE departing to Sochi -OR- go home, train, rest and feed my soul giving up a chance at the Overall World Cup Globe, a trophy I had not won since 2007!

2007 World Cup Globes

2007 Overall World Cup Globe, Overall World Cup Giant Slalom and Slalom Globes

After hours of consultation with Marcel (my husband, coach and everything), my incredible sports psychologist Suzie and our Alpine Director Kevin Jardine, I determined that winning a gold medal in Sochi and winning the Overall World Cup simply could not be accomplished simultaneously for me this season due to the demands of the travel on the World Cup circuit and time away from training.  I would have to choose one or the other.  I chose to give my best performance in Sochi!

I grew up in a small town (sounds like I am about to start singing the John Cougar Mellencamp song – I’ll spare you), but everything that comes to mind about a small town when someone says, “I grew up in a small town” is true for me.  I did not know when I was growing up how wonderful small town life was. Instead I daydreamed about going to Hollywood and becoming an actress.  I wanted to star in moving dramas that would change people’s lives.  Not until my daydreams came true, and I moved to Los Angeles to attend film school at the University of Southern California did I begin to realize the beauty and safety of a simple life in a small community where people say, “hello how are you?” on the street and genuinely care.  I missed my family terribly.  If it weren’t for meeting my still best friend and soul sister Meredith Escabar at University of Southern California, I think I would have perished.  In our household my mother and father both owned their own small businesses.  They modeled hard work, commitment, dedication, honesty and love to my younger brother and me.  Their values became our values and my brother and I both in our own way wanted to grow up and be “good people.” Alone in a city of 12 million people not only did I miss sharing that daily interaction with my family, I realized it was the very core of who I am.

Age 4 - ready for Hollywood!

Age 4 – ready for Hollywood!

The Sundance Film Festival brought me to Park City.  I was promoting a small part in a film (not actually in the festival), which was my acting debut after loosing my legs.  I loved Park City from the moment I arrived (although I had been here before for a ski trip in college and when I spoke at Senator Hatch’s women’s conference two year’s before).  This trip was special because I met Marcel.  I had my first lesson in a mono-ski with him at the National Ability Center.

January 1999 first day I met Marcel and tried a mono-ski at the National Ability Center

January 1999 first day I met Marcel and tried a mono-ski at the National Ability Center

I was so taken by his passion, his love of life and skiing that I would do whatever it took to be on the mountain and ski with him.  The perspective of the world that he showed me from the mountaintop was unlike any other.  I had spent the last three years prior to meeting him in and out of the hospital, having 14 reconstructive surgeries.  From the top of the mountain that day on my very first lesson with Marcel I saw my entire life play out.  Small town girl raised in a loving family pursues acting dreams until one night simply going out to dinner, an out of control car crashed into me and in order to save my life the doctors had to amputate both my legs.  I would never walk or run or dance or stand in the shower as I once had.  My life had changed drastically, but as it holds true for all of us, I knew that my fate, my going forward was still in my hands.  I could create my destiny, my happiness, and my love of life if I so chose. On the mountaintop with Marcel I made the decision that I had no idea would fulfill my creating a new, beautiful life for myself.  I decided to move to Park City, train with Marcel and pursue Paralympic success in Salt Lake City in 2002.

2002 Salt Lake City Paralympic Bronze Medal in Downhill, Marcel cheering in the background

2002 Salt Lake City Paralympic Bronze Medal in Downhill, Marcel cheering in the background

As a result of that decision, on that one day on the mountaintop, I have married the man I love and adore more than anything in the world (in Deer Valley of course!) and I have an amazing career I share with him doing what we both love – ski racing.  Together we have won Gold in the Paralympic Games in Torino and in Vancouver.  We strive to win another this March!

Embracing Marcel in the finish area just after I won my first Paralympic Gold medal in the 2006 Torino Paralympic Games

Embracing Marcel in the finish area just after I won my first Paralympic Gold medal in the 2006 Torino Paralympic Games

I won the first ever, Paralympic Gold medal in Super Combined in the 2010 Vancouver Games

I won the first ever, Paralympic Gold medal in Super Combined in the 2010 Vancouver Games

For the last 15 years throughout my entire ski-racing career, I have been supported by our local community in Park City, a small town we call home.  Deer Valley has sponsored me and been our official home ski area for training.  Marcel and I have spent thousands of hours training in Deer Valley over the last 15 years and we know every square inch of the entire ski area, just like my backyard growing up in Sewickley, PA.  But more important than the safe and familiar, feeling of our home landscape is the connection we share with all the people who work at Deer Valley.  We deeply value the 15-year friendship with the same amazing people who supported me and provided for me in so many ways to make my Paralympic dreams a reality.  The deep bond of friendship we share has for many years felt like family.  I am so grateful to experience on a daily basis the warm welcome from guest services when we roll into Snow Park for training.  The personal inquire about “How I am doing?”, “How is training going?” from people who genuinely care.  Or the chefs who know my special training dietary needs and like my mom still want me to have a chocolate chip cookie reward so they offer me the gluten free one instead!  Deer Valley is my home and the people who work there are my family.  Compared to all the ski areas I have visited world wide, the atmosphere and the people of Deer Valley provide a comfort and charm I associate with the love of my small town upbringing.  I hope it will always stay that way.

We are so fortunate to train both at Deer Valley and at Park City Mountain Resort where we also have an incredible support system not just from our friends at PCMR but from all the teams we join for training at Park City.  My small town connection also includes a 15-year partnership with Rossignol, my ski company who doesn’t just provide me the fastest skis in the world, we share a bond of friendship and they have provided me incredible support.

As I prepare for my fourth Paralympic Games at age 44 in 2014, it only makes sense to return to where I started, to Park City with Marcel and focus on a Gold medal victory one last time.

The Peace of the Morning

There is no greater peace, no quieter moment than riding the first chair on Carpenter Express at Deer Valley with my husband.  Cool and crisp is the morning air and each inhale may result in a exhale of seeing your own breathe.  Floating free as we ascend up the mountain, it won’t be long until the thrill of my ski makes contact with the perfectly creative execution of the corduroy and I surrender to the fall line, knowing Marcel is skiing in symmetry not far behind.  Each turn is a focused, moving mediation with ease aligning my body, slowly angling and countering as I release my weight below my one edge and trust that the ski will bite, engage and come around in the most satisfying clean carve.  To share these unspoken, thrilling while relaxing and peaceful moments with my husband for the last 15 years has healed me.  It has made me whole again.

chairliftOn November 1, 2013 Marcel and I were in Los Angeles after our return from an amazing training camp with the U.S. Team in Hintertux, Austria for a few days of sun, relaxing and training with my strength and conditioning coach, Adam Friedman of Advanced Athletics at Gold’s Gym in Venice Beach. We both remarked about the contrast of being in a tiny Austrian village in the Alps versus being in Los Angeles and how we couldn’t wait to get home to Park City and for Deer Valley to open so we could have the “schlaraffenland” (spoiled paradise) at our disposal for the entire winter again.

At 10:20 a.m., completely unaware of the horrific shootings that just took place an hour before at LAX airport; I innocently drove down Sepulveda Boulevard to Yogaworks to get in one more yoga class before our flight.  Traffic was crazy, cars were at a complete stop which I didn’t find too unusual, it is L.A. after all. But when I saw people running into and out of the airport with their suitcases and five helicopters circling overhead I knew something big was happening.  Somehow, I cruised easily in my car through the chaos and it wasn’t until I stopped in the Yogaworks parking lot that I could look up on my phone “news at LAX.”  What I read stunned me.  I don’t think of myself as having Post Traumatic Stress until moments like this when I feel triggered.  Being in L.A. just a few miles from where my accident took place 18 years ago, the blur of the sirens, ambulances, fireman and police cars made me spiral into memories of that night December 19, 1995, where I too, was a victim and rushed to Harbor UCLA Level 1 Trauma Center and my life hung in the balance just like these innocent TSA personnel who were simply going to work.  I was simply going out to dinner and my life changed forever.  So would theirs.

Somehow I got myself upstairs to class, unrolled my mat, hugged all my fellow yogi friends who wanted to hear about my skiing in Austria and even got a special hug and kiss from our beautiful teacher Aimee, who did not know about the shootings. I did not tell her; I let class unfold as she planned I thought, what can she do with this information in this moment?  She took us through a beautiful class one that focused on breathing and feminine energy.  There were moments in my plank position that tears rolled off my cheek, onto my mat as I thought about the victims, all of them, including myself. I was overflowing with compassion and empathy.

Simply breathing, with a focused intention on the breath returned me to a place of peace in those 90 minutes.  I was centered, grounded and calm just like I feel when I am moving in my meditation of skiing.  I did to want to let that feeling go as I got in my car and tried to process reentering “the world.”  I have to drive up Sepulveda Boulevard again, pass the airport and see if we are even going to fly today.  The entire drive I prayed, I took in the chaos and handed it over to God in prayer.  Life does go on, even after a tragedy, it’s how we move forward that matters.

As I tried to fall asleep that night I told myself to go to a happy place, imagine something and someone I love, anything to take my mind off of the horrible, senseless images of the day.  What came to my mind was Marcel with me, on the first chair at Deer Valley, just breathing, floating and peacefully anticipating our first tracks.  I felt myself filling with gratitude, with joy, with love and appreciation for the many beautiful things I have been blessed to witness and experience. Most of those moments involve my life as a ski racer and every single one of them includes Marcel.

marcel and stefanie.jpgI intended to write this month’s blog about our amazing trip to Austria and if they will let me write two blogs this month I will.  I just had to share with you my thoughts, my feelings and my gratitude for the amazing life I am living and invite you all to come enjoy what we both know is peace…skiing.

Opening day is December 7, 2013 see you on the slopes.

stephani

Bringing Home Gold from Down Under

DSC_9382Stephani Victor is a 5-time Paralympic Medalist and World Champion. She will be sharing her experiences on the road as the clock counts down to the 2014 Winter Paralympic Games in Sochi, Russia.

Not everyone has Alpine World Cup racing on his or her mind at the start of August, but I did as we headed to New Zealand and Australia for the opening World Cup races.  It seems like just yesterday I was sitting on the deck at Royal Street Café enjoying my summer favorite, the Asian Grilled Chicken salad, and mentally packing my winter ski clothing.  I have trained in New Zealand with the team many times in the past, but World Cup racing “Down Under” would be a first.

The top of the ski area in Coronet Peak overlooking Queenstown.

The top of the ski area in Coronet Peak overlooking Queenstown.

Our World Cup circuit began just outside the tranquil waterfront village of Queenstown at Coronet Peak Ski Area with two Slalom races as part of the Audi Quattro New Zealand Winter Games line-up.  After my Paralympic Slalom win in the 2006 Torino Olympic Games, I have had a bit of a reputation for being a Slalom specialist, but even I had no expectations of winning on the first day or at all.  We just hoped I’d make the podium and start the season off with a good feeling.  New Zealand had reported their warmest winter ever and although the snow coverage started out well in June, by the time we arrived early August the base depth was dwindling.  If it weren’t for the freezing temperatures overnight, we may not have had any racing at all.  The steep T-lift access to the top of the racecourse made me long for the comfortable chairlift rides in the Wasatch.  Being on an island, in the Southern hemisphere in the middle of our summer looking at the sun on the what feels like the wrong side of the sky results in a less than comfortable feeling for ski racing (which in my mind was a great preparation for the Paralympic Games in Sochi less than 200 days away).  Unlike the beautiful corduroy groomers I am so fond of early morning on Big Stick, the snow under foot sounded more like metal grinding on metal because it hardly resembled snow, it was blank ice.  Fortunately, I was taught by my coach (and husband) to love all conditions both snow and weather.  “Skiing is outside” he would say which meant “deal with it.” The sun was warm and the visibility great.  From the top of the racecourse I looked out over the valley and took in the views of the other mountaintops in background hovering over beautiful Queenstown and the lake.  I thought to myself “I am in New Zealand!  Racing!” and I pushed out of the start with such excitement it was as if I was beginning my first season and not my last.

Queenstown Award CeremonyI have had the great privilege of being a member of Team USA for 12 years.  I have competed in three Paralympic Games starting in Salt Lake City (incredible to race at home), and I have exceeded my performance at every Paralympics by finishing with my best Games ever in Vancouver (2010) where I won the first Gold medal in the Super Combined and took home two silvers in Giant Slalom and Slalom.  How could I possibly top that in Sochi?  Well, for my last Games I am going to give it all I have.  For me nothing has been more important than the support of my loyal friends and sponsors who are there for me to shake off the disappointments and celebrate with me in times of victory.

Mt Hutt ski area before the Super Combined race.

Mt Hutt ski area before the Super Combined race.

I won all four of the World Cup races in New Zealand, two Slalom races in Coronet Peak followed by a Super G and Super Combined in Mt Hutt.  For all the hours I discussed with my sports psychologist how to build confidence, I learned that “winning” World Cup races really helped!

IMG_0520#1I never get tired of hearing the National Anthem and it really means something to know that your athletic performance is the reason why you are hearing it.  Each time the American flag was raised and the song began to play I would close my eyes and beam my gratitude and thanks all around me.  Grateful that I have not lived my life “confined to a wheelchair” as I was originally diagnosed after my accident.  Grateful that I am healthy, strong and able to compete with and sometimes win against people much younger than me.  Grateful that my husband is my coach and continues to share this wonderful journey that takes us to every corner of the globe…. to SKI!

Marcel and Stephani

Top of the ski area in Thredbo Ski Area, Australia.

Top of the ski area in Thredbo Ski Area, Australia.

Next stop was Thredbo, Australia for four more World Cup races.  Please know in advance I spent five hours a day 5-days a week (sometimes six) this summer working with my athletic trainer, Adam Friedman, in Gold’s Gym in preparation for this season.  Training pays off.  You have to train strength, conditioning, skiing and your mind.  Ski races are won by hundredths of a second and your mental edge may be your best skier’s edge.  We landed in Sydney and had two beautiful days off in the city to explore and coincidently celebrate my birthday.  How wonderful to bask in the sun on Manly Beach and rest in preparation for our next race series.  We drove six hours southeast towards Thredbo and it was very apparent we were in a different world, even different from the island world of New Zealand.  Not only was it the hottest winter in New Zealand, Australia shared the same warm winter record.  We arrived in the Jindabyne Sport Reaction Center which looked more like a cross between a campground and an army basic training facility but it would be our home for the next week.  All the teams from around the world were stationed in various cabins around the campus sharing the same dining hall, tuning rooms and outdoor track. The people there hardly seemed like ski racers in their tank tops and gym shorts roaming the grounds looking for Kangaroos.  I couldn’t imagine we would see a Kangaroo much less have a family hop right past our front door, but they did!

DSC_9822The best time to see a Kangaroo is at dusk or sunrise and little did we know we would be up before the Kangaroos to make our World Cup races happen.  Up at 4 a.m., I would do my morning warm-up routine of Kundalini yoga, eat breakfast and load the vans.  Driving in the pitch dark up to ski area my teammates and I shared the task of looking for Kangaroos on the side of the road like deer.  They tend to jump out in the road and freeze like a “kangaroo in headlights” (maybe that will catch on).

Screen Shot 2013-09-04 at 5.30.53 PM - Version 2Screen Shot 2013-09-10 at 1.47.08 PMAt the base the snow looked thin, okay you could see patches of dirt and some runs no one bothered to do anything more than let the grass grow.  But the World Cup race run started at the summit and to our surprise, a whopping 2,000 meters in elevation. We would have to start the inspection in the dark, loading the chairlift at 6:30 a.m. and start the race at 7:30 a.m. to finish the race before the sun turned everything to mashed potatoes.  All the racers were willing to start early and thank goodness it froze at night other wise as we discovered on the last day, the racing would not happen.

DSC_98967 medals Austalia World CupFull of confidence and excitement I raced the first Giant Slalom as if I had nothing to lose.  I didn’t expect to win, how could I keep this winning streak going?  But I did; I won all three of the three World Cup races in Australia to bring home a total of seven gold medals and memories to last a lifetime.  I am so infused with energy and excitement for this season.  It is the truth, I am fortunate to ski all over the world but every time I come home, I know I have arrived at the best place on earth.  I can’t wait to ski in Park City!