March 26, 2014
Colorado Springs, CO
The US Olympic Training Center (OTC) is much like a small college campus where Olympic and National Team athletes can live and train year round, often for many years in a row. Instead of classrooms and lecture halls there are workout facilities, gymnasiums, an Olympic size pool, and an indoor shooting range (particular to the OTC in Colorado). There are three OTCs in the US, each with very different training facilities. One in Chula Vista, California where many track and field, BMX, field hockey, and rowing athletes train; another in Lake Placid, New York where many of the bobsled, skeleton, and luge athletes train; and Colorado Springs, Colorado where many wrestling, weightlifting, triathlon, swimming, shooting and alpine skiing athletes train. The OTCs all provide very good food in such a way where it is very easy and encouraged to eat specifically for the needs of your body and your sport. The campuses are worlds unto themselves, providing for every athlete’s basic needs and are really neat places to see if you ever visit any of these cities.
A few days before the Sochi Paralympics officially ended, I flew to the OTC in Colorado Springs to begin physical therapy to repair strained and bruised muscles caused by my downhill crash, as well as monitor the substantial concussion I sustained. The OTC here has an amazing sports medicine facility where you end up spending a lot of time once you have broken yourself in the pursuit of excellence. They have many different methods for fixing you including massage, strength training, hot and cold plunges, muscle zapper machines (it’s a technical term, I swear), ultrasound, as well as MRI, X-Ray, and DXA scan machines. Sports Medicine is always staffed by several highly trained physical therapists and doctors who can fix just about anything.
Part of the process of diagnosing what I damaged in my Sochi crash has included several encounters with Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) machines, which are fascinating. It produces a magnetic field around your body that excites hydrogen atoms in your tissues, causing you to produce a radio frequency. The machine can detect how quickly the frequency returns to normal, the rate of which determines the difference between bone, muscle, fat and other tissues, thus giving you an accurate image of your innards. The technology is much like a microwave oven, in fact, causing your body to heat up noticeably.
A few days ago I spent an hour in one of these machines, trying to lay perfectly still while it microwaved my spine, no easy task due to the immense amount of pain in my lower spine. The MRI technician assured me that the microwaving aspect of the machine was safe, but the heat building up in my body did not put me at ease. I endured the pain, the cause of which was determined to be bruising of the first two lumbar vertebrae in my spine. Considering the forces involved in my crash at the Sochi Paralympics I am lucky to have escaped with a bruised spine being the only damage to my skeleton.
Recovering from the concussion has been particularly challenging. Since my crash I have gone through periods of intense dizziness, nausea, and vomiting with overwhelming sensitivity to light and noise. In the first week I could barely withstand being outside my quiet, darkened room for more than ten minutes. Flying home was another challenge. I got to fly first class the whole way, with the beds, good food, big TV screens, and supermodel flight attendants, but I could enjoy very little of it because I was too sore to sleep, would throw up the food, and couldn’t stand looking at the brightness of the monitor. It was also challenging to look outside as trying to focus on near and far objects quickly proved to be very uncomfortable.
I am getting better. I spent the first week here sleeping most of the time, emerging briefly for meals and therapy. Each day the pain and discomfort become a little bit less and it is a bit easier to do everything. Now most of the concussion symptoms have passed, I can sit in my chair and push around easily, and I have been able to do light workouts. I am still quite sore in my back and core, but I expect to fully recover in another few weeks. The staff and facilities at the OTC have been instrumental in the healing process and I am very thankful for all their help.
March 8, 2014
Rhosa Khotor, Russia
Paralympic Downhill Race
Beep! 30 seconds. I push up to the starting gate, trying to find a good place to put my outriggers so that I push through the starting wand with maximum speed. I must breath! My heart-rate is too high. Remember to reach with the outside hand and drive with the uphill hand! I must remember to do that. Beep! 10 seconds. People are yelling behind me. Encouragement. I take a quick and deep breath, planting my riggers in the snow. Nothing but the run. I just need to focus on the run!
Beep! 5 seconds. Breath hard.
Beep! 4 seconds. Breath hard. People are still yelling.
Beep! 3 seconds. Breath hard.
Beep! 2 seconds. Push out! Push, push, push! Yelling fades behind me. I flip my outriggers down when the speed picks up. I need to calm back down for the first turn, to get my body back under control from the adrenaline. Ok, I’m calm. The first turn is easy, just a little bit of edge and look for the exit. I don’t need too much direction, not as much as last run. I’m coming out of the first turn now and I see the next one. I’m going to nail it this time! No sliding, no holding back. I’m carving this one. Ok, release turn one, see the rise line, and start the pressure. I feel the edge engaging. This is going to be a great turn.
I can’t move. Everything is bright. I can hear people moving around me. Have I been sleeping? It must have been a really good sleep. I can hardly move after a really good sleep. I hear a dragging sound underneath me. I am being dragged. Why am I being dragged? Where am I? What was I doing? Nothing. I’ve got nothing. Ok, what do I know? For some reason my head is locked down tighter than anything else. I hear dragging. Dragging side to side. A sled! I must be in a sled. Where are there sleds? Ski areas! Ski areas have sleds. Wait, they have sleds for injured people. Damn. I’m in one of those. Ok, I’m injured, at a ski area. Don’t panic. Where am I, though? Come on, memory! Where am I?! Wait, do I hear a helicopter? That’s cool. I like helicopters. I’ve always wanted to ride in one. Ooh! The people are picking me up and sliding me into the helicopter! That’s awesome! Helicopter ride!
Russia! I’m in Russia! Why am I in Russia? Paralympics! Those are happening right now! What event was today? Downhill! I think I was worried about the downhill for some reason. Oh damn, I messed up my run somehow and now I am being flown off the hill in a helicopter. It must have been one heck of a crash. I wonder how far I made it? Damn, can’t remember. Not important. Ok, can I feel everything? Lets check. Stumps, where are you? Hey! There you are. I can feel those. The injuries must not be too bad. No bad pain yet, but I am sure that will come. That neck brace is probably for precaution. I wonder if the Russian paramedics speak english? I need to tell them what hurts so they can tend to me properly. I really don’t want them to screw anything up. Oh, hey there! “Hello! Where pain? Tell!” He says.
That is what I remember thinking and experiencing the moments before and after my crash in the Paralympic downhill at Rosa Khutor, Russia. I had never experienced anything like it and I never want to again. I won’t watch the crash footage, but from what I can gather from other people, I had an amazing run going until gate nine where I hit a unique sequence of bumps that my body and suspension couldn’t compensate for. I had not expected this part of the course to be a problem, but I was thrown head over heels several times, lost consciousness, broke some of my equipment, and ended up in a crumpled heap a few hundred meters down from the bump I had just launched off at more than 60 miles per hour.
When I got to the hospital the doctors immediately cut all my clothes off, covered me in a sheet, and sent me through a CAT scan as well as an MRI. Miraculously the results showed me to be unbroken both times. If you saw the crash you would have thought otherwise. An hour after the crash the pain started. If you are curious as to what that felt like, go work out everything in your body to complete exhaustion, then keep doing it until you are physically incapable of movement. Then have someone smash a baseball bat upside your head.
I consider myself extraordinarily lucky that I was not more injured. This crash could have ended up far worse. I am very sorry for scaring people and that was never my intention. What I was trying to do was win the race. I had a plan worked out before I ran that would have done just that and I had executed it flawlessly up until the crash. My plan included nothing that I wasn’t sure I was physically capable of doing, but as I have said before, you can be the most well trained, prepared person on the hill but luck still plays a role.
I am on the mend now and improving daily. I have no permanent damage and I fully intend on getting back on skis and going fast again. I am a little upset for having another unsuccessful Paralympics, but overwhelmingly happy to be healthy. Russia has put on a very good Paralympics and the people I have met here are amazing, but it is now time to go home.
February 25, 2014
World Cup Finals
It is extremely difficult to write while Jimi Hendrix’s rendition of the Star Spangled Banner is playing at ear drum rupturing volume in the background. That is an inconvenience I am willing to live with, however, because this song is what my teammates and I play when we have had a particularly good day. Today we just finished the downhill portion of the world cup finals with my teammate Chris Devlin-Young finishing with a second and third place in two races, securing for himself the world cup downhill title for this year. I did not podium, but two top ten finishes today made me second in the downhill rankings. It also means that, with only two races left in the world cup season this year, I have enough points in the overall world cup rankings to completely secure the overall world cup title for all races combined. Chris, who has been racing much longer than myself, tells me that no American male has ever won the world cup overall title. Excuse me while I go see if the music can get any louder.
The world cup races this season have taken a back seat in importance in regards to the Paralympics coming up next week. Regardless, you can’t help but take them seriously once you are in the starting gate. Winning the overall world cup title is much like a lifetime achievement award and it literally takes a lifetime of training and racing to be consistent enough to even come close. Many things have to come together at the right time including equipment, technique, training and coaching. I have an amazing coaching staff and lots of supporters and sponsors who have all made this possible.
I now have one more race and a few days off before I travel to Sochi. I am really enjoying Italy including its culinary delights, although I really need to find a source of vegetables soon. They love their pasta and meat here, especially when they can enjoy it over three hours and twelve courses. The snow is plentiful, however, and the people are very nice and helpful.
The Paralympics always seem like they are looming in the horizon. In a few days we will get our uniforms and final lectures about logistics and proper decorum during the games. I have been told many times about what I can and cannot say about my experience at the games, so future updates might not be as entertaining as I would like. I can tell you that there are a lot of strange rules I have to follow and you may have to Google between the lines. By now you have probably seen some parts of the uniform and some of the venues in Sochi. We will be wearing the same clothes and competing in the same places, but with different logos. We will still look fabulous.
February 5, 2014
I have officially been nominated to the 2014 US Paralympic Team, a press release from US Paralympics has just told me, but this does not surprise me very much. I am sitting on my couch, not jumping for joy and my heart rate has only slightly registered the news. I am happy, sure, but I have expected to accomplish this for a long time.
I do not want to come off as cocky or ungrateful, so allow me to explain. I have been racing on the US Paralympics Alpine Ski Team for about ten years. In order to be on the team for this long I have had to be consistently successful. All of my training in the mental and physical aspects of this sport has been towards success on the race hill. I do not always win, but in general I have been quite successful. For me, doing well at a race, is the equivalent of turning in a decent term paper for university or completely fulfilling your job expectations at work. Granted, my job is a really unique and exciting one, but it is still a job. I expect to go to the Paralympics like university students expect to graduate or people expect to be promoted after years of hard work.
Winning a medal at the Paralympics will be another matter entirely.
It is considered a grand thing to win a medal at the Olympics and Paralympics. A lifetime of hard work leads to one moment to shine. Some people have several chances but the idea is the same. Statistically, doing well at the Olympics and Paralympics is very unlikely. The race itself is like any other, albeit with more people watching and cameras recording your every move. Ski racing is extremely intense and you have to perform at your full potential immediately, for about two minutes. If you let up at all, you lose. Therefore, the rate at which you have a great run is really low. The chances of everything working out for you for a single two minute run every four years, as you can imagine, is really low.
I find the pressure from coaches, teammates, family, friends, and media to do well at a single race every four years to be very frustrating. In many ways, winning the overall World Cup title is harder to do and better reflects who is the best skier in the world. Athletes know this and this title is much sought after. It is much harder to explain this concept to the rest of the world. Everyone loves a hero, and what better way to become one than winning at the most important sporting event the world has ever seen?
With all that said, I am very excited to have the opportunity to compete in Sochi this March. I have a burning desire to win every event I compete in, despite the odds. I know this goal is mildly unrealistic, but in an environment like the Paralympics you tend get caught up in things. There is always the chance that I will not achieve a podium in any event, and I will have to accept that this is a possible outcome. In the last two Paralympics this outcome became my reality and it was devastating. My mind went to some very dark places for a long time. I might have to deal with this reality again, and I fear that this will be one of the greatest mental challenges I have yet faced.
January 17-31, 2014
World Cup Races at Copper, Colorado and Tignes, France
You can’t win every race, but every ski racer definitely tries to do so. This was exactly what I was trying to do in the second slalom of the World Cup in Copper, CO last week. After a wild ride on the first run I was sitting in sixth place. I should have been happy that I even finished the run because ruts were developing that almost sent me head-over-heels multiple times. In IPC (International Paralympic Committee) World Cup races, sit-skiers, my class, run last after two other classes: the visually impaired and standing (people missing a leg or an arm but ski standing up). This means that I run after at least 60 people, so the course has really deteriorated by the time that I run.
Fourth place is a really irritating place to be in. You almost made it, but not quite. All the time and effort, just to be the first person not on the podium. One fourth is not so bad, but by the end of the Copper World Cup I had a streak of several fourths and fifths and it was starting to wear on me. I wanted to win so badly but I kept making weird little mistakes in every run. To make it worse, the same people seemed to win every day. I have always striven to be fast and consistent, but it sometimes seems as unattainable as the desire to be come an astronaut.
Fast forward to the present and I am now in Tignes, France at another World Cup race. I have been here several times over my career and every time there has been more snow at this one place than any other ski area I have seen. This trip has not disappointed in that regard, as we got two feet of snow in the first two days. This meant that the first downhill training run was cancelled in favor of powder skiing, my favorite event. I love racing, but I live for powder skiing. Two days of this completely reset my mood and perspective towards the entire sport. Anyone who is moderately good at skiing will understand how the feeling of flying over fluffy clouds of powder will completely remove a bad mood.
Today the weather cleared up and we were able to have a downhill training run in the morning. In the afternoon, due to our now shortened schedule because of the snow, we ran the fist of two downhill races. Because of the powder skiing, I was in such a good mood that I won the first training run and got second in the race. I had some obvious mistakes in the race run, but I am so happy now that I don’t even care. I can just let it go and move on to the next race. That is the power of powder.
— This is the second in a series of articles I am writing for the Littleton Record newspaper.
January 11, 2014
World Cup Race, Panorama, British Columbia
Ski races hardly ever turn out according to plan. If they did, everyone would win. So it always helps to try and create as much fun as possible amidst the chaos of unpredictability.
During a recent World Cup event, this pursuit of fun left me stuck between a pile of rocks and a pine tree in the back bowl of Panorama, B.C. It had snowed just enough to cancel the super-combined race we had scheduled for the day, so my teammate, Chris Devlin-Young and I decided to follow some coaches to a snow field where the powder was rumored to be deeper than anywhere else on the mountain.
After a lot of traversing through un-tracked powder I accidentally scraped over a pile of rocks I couldn’t see. In an effort to extract myself, I fell off the rocks and into a tree-well. After ten minutes and a lot of pushing and digging, I got myself out and onto the snowfield.
The effort was worth it, though, as the snowfield had seemingly bottomless powder and the way down was easily one of the funnest runs I have had this season.
Chris, who coached me at Loon Mountain for several years before I made the national team, was the driving force to get me from recreational skier to World Cup competitor, and is one of the few people I trust to get themselves into and out of tricky skiing situations.
Creating fun on this trip has been of great importance. I am very well prepared for this season and my confidence in my abilities is high, but luck still plays a huge role in ski racing. Inserting elements of fun into this journey to the Sochi Paralympics keeps the seriousness of competition from becoming too overwhelming.
The following description of my races will make it clear how serious the competition can get.
Downhill was the first race at this location. I was feeling really good about it because it started off with a series of technical turns, which I do really well, with the last half being much straighter and faster. Unfortunately I don’t ski fast, straight courses very well because I don’t weight very much and I wasn’t able to ski the technical part precisely enough which ended my day in eighth place, a few seconds out of first. On Sunday, after the powder day, we were able to race a super-combined (one run each of downhill and slalom) and I had similar problems with the downhill portion. I redeemed myself in the slalom, however, by winning that portion handily. Unfortunately, the effort was only enough to out me in into fourth, an immensely infuriating position to be in.
On Monday we ran giant slalom and it started off great, only to end in more frustration. I won the first run by one hundredth of a second and there were about ten guys within a second of my time. I was feeling rally good for the second run and my mind thought I had the race wrapped up. Unfortunately, I ended up not skiing dangerously enough to remain on top, and I ended up fifth.
Tuesday was the super-G (faster and straighter than giant slalom, but a bit slower than downhill) and I was really excited for it because of its more technical nature compared to downhill. My excitement was to be short-lived, however. When I inspected the course it appeared to be technical enough for me to win, but when I ran it, the course turned out to be faster than the downhill. This deception happens on occasion but I still managed another fifth.
About Me: I learned to ski and race a Cannon Mountain, Loon Mountain, and Waterville Valley, New Hampshire. I happen to be missing both of my legs at the knee, and I ski using a device called a mono ski or sit ski. This device is much like the rear end of a mountain bike, where a metal frame moves up and down with the help of a shock absorber. I sit, strapped in on the top of the frame, with a single ski on the bottom in place of a wheel This mono ski allows me to ski just like someone standing up, but in a sitting position. I am currently trying to qualify for and hopefully compete in the Paralympics this year in Sochi, Russia. The Paralympics, for clarification, are the same as the Olympics, but for people with physical disabilities. Competition takes place in the same location as the Olympics, just a few weeks. later.
— This is the second in a series of articles I am writing for the Littleton Record newspaper.
Russia is different.
I have always thought that if were a foreigner flying to the United States, customs was a most unwelcoming and frustrating first experience of this country. Getting into the EU, on the other hand, is super easy and they seem to actually want you to be there. Going to Russia is like going to the United States. You have to fill out a lengthy application and they want to know everything about you. When you get there you have to recheck all of your bags and recheck-in for your next flight. When you are on a 20 person team and every one of you has at least 4 bags at or above 50lbs, this is no easy task. The trip took a while, but we made it.
One of my first experiences of Russia was quite funny. My teammates and I were all sitting at the back of the plane, waiting to disembark in Sochi. Our wheelchairs had not come up to the plane yet so we inquired to the steward if they were going to come up to the plane at all. He pauses for a moment, looks out the door of the plane, looks back at us, and with a slight frown says “I will ask, but this is Russia.” (Where did they go? Siberia?)
We stayed in this completely manufactured village called Rosa Khutor that consists of nothing but giant hotels and a sewage infested river running through the middle. The nearest real town is about 30 minutes down the valley. There is construction going on all along the valley, 24/7, and I have never seen so many dump trucks and concrete mixers in one place.
The security situation in this area is intense. Sochi is just barely north of the Georgian border, which Russia invaded a few years ago over a dispute about Russians living in several regions bordering Russia. This did not go well for Georgia, so they are not exactly friends. Chechnya, a republic of Russia, is a few hundred kilometers to the east, and Russia has had to quell several uprisings over the past few decades. Due to all of this one can see not just the police everywhere, but the army, too. The ski area is accessed by one gondola and you are only allowed to go up there on the days you are racing, so freeskiing is not possible. You also need to pass through full airport-like security run by guards who have no sense of humor and are not allowed to smile. The skiing looks like it would be great and the mountain is huge and steep, but the chances of running into hidden machine gun nests and razor wire are rather higher than your average ski area.
The downhill is awesome. We ran down the men’s downhill which has all sorts of cool terrain features, including steeps, flats, fall-away turns, and a real jump! We don’t often have jumps in our downhills because there are some disability classes that are not well suited to flying through the air, or so I have been told. I saw all the disability classes go down the course and they did just fine, with no one class crashed more than the other. The track was a ton of fun and if you ran it correctly you were in the air for quite some time. Due to very soft snow and warm weather, we ran the only training run of the downhill and the first race on the same day. Normally a downhill takes two days of training and one day of racing. I ended up winning the race because of a perfect combination of a bumpy track, technical turns, and a jump I was not at all afraid of going full speed on. The next day we had another downhill and my teammate, Chris Devlin-Young, won. It bodes well for next year.
The next day it started to rain. We were supposed to run a super-combined but the track go too soft and the visibility was too bad so we just ran a slalom. In the slalom I was top ten in the first run and easily within striking distance for the podium. In my second run I skied some of the best slalom I have ever skied, but I went too straight into a flush just before the finish and flipped over the wrong side of the last few gates. This has been a pattern the whole year, but I know that once I get my consistency, I will crush slaloms.
At the end of this World Cup season I ended up third in the giant slalom standings and I won the speed events globe (we don’t have enough races to do separate globes for downhill and super-g, and a crystal globe is the first place prize of any world cup overall category). Overall it wasn’t a bad year, but I have the skills to be the best.
Thanks to all my sponsors for helping me through another season. Nike, Starz Entertainment, Aspen Seating, POC and Enabling Technologies make it happen!
Here are some pictures!
Tyler Walker is a member of the U.S. Adaptive Ski Team and the 2014 U.S. Paralympic Alpine Skiing Team. He won three 2013-14 World Cup globes: Overall, as well as for Speed and Slalom events. He is a national and international sit-ski champion in several alpine disciplines as well as a 2006 and 2010 Paralympian and a three-time X-Games gold medalist.
Tyler graduated in 2008 from the University of New Hampshire with a dual major in geography and international affairs, with minors in political science and German. He currently lives in Colorado where he trains in Aspen and Colorado Springs.