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Thursday, January 24, 2008
Updated: January 26, 7:58 PM ET
Sit. Fall. Repeat.

By Brian Kamenetzky

Kevin Bramble plays a little loose with the truth.
"You've skied before, right?" he asked, when I presented the idea of the two time Olympic gold medal winning Paralympian taking me out for a spin in a one of his custom designed sit skis.


"It's easy then. You'll be fine."
Mentor and student, before the fall.

As a (relatively) able-bodied, (relatively) good athlete, my interest in experiencing a sport traditionally reserved for disabled athletes wasn't motivated by a bleeding heart, Tyra-in-a-fat-suit compulsion to feel the pain of a discriminated class of competitors. These aren't people I pity, certainly not after watching them rip down the Skier X course at last year's Winter X. They haul ass, they jump, they crash, they get back up. They kick a lot more tail on a mountain than I ever have or will.

I wanted to sit in their seat and understand, even on a surface level, what it's like to engage in a sport without relying on a lower half of my body that has come in fairly handy over the years. Then, to try and get a feel for what they're doing on the hill. I don't huck cliffs, but I get skiing and snowboarding. Mono Skier X? Not so much.

Step one: Get in. Bramble, who has designed the sit ski apparatus that most of his competition will be riding, brought out his spare rig- a metallic lime green number that binds into a traditional ski. Legs and feet strapped tightly in front of me, support came from a) balance and b) outriggers, which are short poles with a ski-like attachment that can be deployed once moving.

Step two: Get on the lift. If you're good, you mush up with the outriggers, elevate with your arms, and drop the sit ski on the chair. If you're me, you're hand-loaded onto the thing by lift operators after they stop it completely. Getting off, I was given a needed push from Bramble's wife Leslie, popped up off the chair, ran smooth and straight for a solid ten yards, then fell.

That would become a theme.

Kevin Bramble is a doer, not a teacher. And not necessarily a planner, either.

I should have realized I was in trouble when on the way up the lift Bramble told me how on his first day skiing after the accident that left him paralyzed, he just showed up at Tahoe's Alpine Meadows, borrowed a pair of outriggers, hopped on the lift, and set about teaching himself how to sit ski.

"Within six days, everyone was like, "You rip. You go insanely fast. You should go ski racing."

"Go that way, really fast. If something gets in your way, turn."
It was very hard for me to go far without falling, and it was really freakin' hard to get up once I did. Over the first 150 yards or so, I learned this lesson at least 12 times. Each fall presented a unique set of challenges. First, I had to move my rig so that the ski was pointed in a direction that would let me gain some balance Then, it was a matter of using my inside arm to push the outrigger into the snow, and once I was high enough, sticking the other one in to get perpendicular to the ground.

Sometimes it worked fairly easily. Generally it required a tug from Bramble, and some heft from poor Leslie, who likely did not wake up this morning hoping to hoist me around Buttermilk Mountain.

"We should have brought a big guy," Bramble said, "I don't know how I thought we'd do this without a big guy."

Realizing I'd need more help if I was to get down the mountain before nightfall, Bramble headed down while Leslie (she really is the hero of this story) hung out with me.

Dog tired and sweating profusely, I unstrapped myself the sit ski and waited for the cavalry. Needless to say, we got some odd looks, especially from ski patrol, who, passing two able-bodied people standing next to an empty sit ski, wondered where the hell the disabled guy had gone.

At that point, I would introduce myself.

My savior arrived in the form of Tim Emling, an assistant with Challenge Aspen Racing, who clearly drew the "big guy" short straw. After a few more falls, Tim, seeing the writing on the wall, held on to the back of my seat and "bucketed" me through the steeper sections until we reached a more tame area: the place of the day's triumph.
This is a still photo, but it's an accurate depiction of the author's speed.

Two turns. Not pretty, but good enough. Followed, of course, by falls.

Safely deposited at the bottom of the hill, I had a chance to talk to other racers about their introduction to sit ski. Paralympian Sarah Will, the lone female competitor in last year's field, was sympathetic.

"When I first started, I slammed repeatedly the first day, over and over. The second day was a little better. By the third, I didn't feel confident at all," she said. "I was watching other people out on the mountain, and I just never thought I would be able to do that again."

It might have helped, she suggested, if Bramble had started me on more mellow terrain.

"That was probably a liiiiitle too hairy for you," laughed Trevor Snowden, making his X Games debut this year. "But then again, now you can go write that we're hard core."

I could have done that without the bruises.

This is what it's supposed to look like.
Snowden told me by the sixth run on his first day, he was jumping table tops. Thirty days after fellow X newbie Felix Snow was strapped into his first sit ski, he was jumping out of a helicopter in Telluride. "You learn to use what you got," he said. "The mechanics of skiing change, but the rules are the same. Then you adapt, adapt, adapt."

That, as highly decorated Paralympian Chris Devlin-Young explained to me, was probably part of my problem. I'm used to initiating turns with my hips, legs, and feet. My mind is programmed to operate athletically a certain way, one that was counter to the principles of sit skiing. These athletes, Devlin-Young told me, had to relearn what they previously knew.

"There ain't no other snow sport," Snowden said, "so you'd better figure it out."

Kevin Bramble has a heart.
This photo was taken before the reporting of the story. Hence, the smile.

When it was over, Bramble apologized for giving me more than I could handle, but it wasn't a big deal since I got what I was looking for. First, I had a chance to be taken completely out of my element and thoroughly humbled, something everyone should do from time to time. But more importantly, I was able to deepen my admiration for a group of athletes who wouldn't ask for it, nor necessarily want it.

But they'll get it anyway. As soon as I down a few more Advil.