Like Ginger Rogers dancing backwards in high heels to partner with Fred Astaire, Paralympians do everything their able-bodied and more publicized counterparts do—despite the higher degree of difficulty inherent in competing with a missing limb, paralysis or vision impairment. Paralympic skiers make speeding downhill at more than 70 miles per hour or shooting at an unseen biathlon target look as easy as it can look.
Just why would a legally blind Nordic skier want to enter a biathlon? “To have more competitive opportunities and to win more medals,” says Rob Walsh ’88, whose macular degeneration began when he was 10 but whose Nordic skiing career began only when he arrived in Hanover. The innovative technology employed for Paralympic biathletes provides a window on how Olympic events can be adapted: Shooting from a prone position, Paralympians wear headphones and use rifles wired to targets. Audio tones indicate proximity to a target. “It doesn’t really matter whether you can see or not,” says Walsh, summing up the basic premise of Paralympic competition.
The challenge is what it’s all about. Alums who appreciate that have been influential behind the scenes working as guides and coaches and with the organizations that expand international competition for top-tier athletes and develop recreational programming at the grassroots level.
Joe Walsh ’84, a vision-impaired two-time Paralympic Nordic skier who preceded his brother on Dartmouth’s cross-country ski team, oversees both types of programming as managing director of the Paralympics division of the U.S. Olympic Committee in Colorado Springs, Colorado. Tryg Myhren ’58, Tu’59, has mobilized the cable TV industry, through a 14-year-old event called SkiTAM, to raise more than $1 million for the U.S. adaptive ski team each of the last six years. He’s engaged in developmental outreach as well, inspired in large part, he says, by Dartmouth disabled skiers including Sarah Billmeier ’99, longtime team member Carl Burnett ’03 and the late Diana Golden-Brosnihan ’84.
Paralympic competition originated as an outlet for World War II veterans with spinal cord injuries. Now, with thousands of veterans confronting debilitating injuries sustained in Iraq and Afghanistan, efforts to expand sports opportunities as a matter of both physical and mental rehabilitation has taken on a new urgency.
“Most young people who go into the armed services are very fit and athletic,” says Myhren. “For them to wake up with catastrophic injuries is especially devastating. Naurally, almost all of them are deeply depressed. We believe adaptive sport can provide a path for many to new-found fitness, productivity and confidence.” It has been gratifying, he says, to see vets respond to video footage of Paralympic events shown at military hospitals and to talk to them about the programs offered at developmental centers being started around the country.
Dartmouth skiers would figure prominently in any all-time highlights reel. Two decades ago arguably America’s most successful alpinist in adaptive skiing (the U.S. team changed its name from “disabled” in 2008 to more accurately reflect the talents of its members) was Golden-Brosnihan, who told DAM in 1988, “A pet peeve of mine is that the public refuses to view what we do as athletic.” Although Billmeier says public perception “still has a long way to go for people to see disabled skiers as competitive rather than participatory,” there are encouraging signs that Paralympians are now viewed as the elite athletes they are. At the 2006 Paralympic Games in Torino, says Myhren, who was chef de mission there, a full stadium for opening and closing ceremonies and packed stands for all events—standing, seated and guide-assisted alpine and Nordic skiing, sled hockey and wheelchair curling—spoke to growing support. Similar attendance is expected in Vancouver.
Golden-Brosnihan, who lost her right leg to cancer at the age of 12 but nonetheless skied competitively in high school and for Dartmouth, helped lay the foundation of such support. She not only amassed an impressive 10 gold medals in the 1986, 1988 and 1990 Disabled World Championships, but also fought for the inclusion of disabled skiers in U.S. Ski Association races—and for disabled skiers in the Olympic Games. She especially valued the gold medal she won in the exhibition giant slalom at the 1988 Calgary games. Four years later the Paralympic Games were placed on the same rotation at the same venues as the traditional Olympics.
Golden-Brosnihan was a special inspiration to Martha Hill Gaskill ’82, who was a ranked tennis player but only a recreational skier before losing her leg to cancer a year before she came to Dartmouth. Gaskill also competed in Calgary, winning bronze. “When I first saw Diana I thought I could help her around campus,” says Gaskill. “Then I realized she’d been coping with life on one leg a lot longer than I had. When we raced in Calgary we were representing not only the United States but all people with disabilities.”
Both were also representing Dartmouth to skiers such as Billmeier, an amputee since the age of 5 and a racer from age 8. By the time she entered Dartmouth in the fall of 1995 Billmeier had already won gold medals in the Paralympic Games of 1992 and 1994. By the time she retired from competitive skiing in 2001 she had won 13 Paralympic medals and six world championship titles.
Serious competitive skiing became an outlet for all of Dartmouth’s winter Paralympians not in spite of their disabilities but because of them. “I wouldn’t have been an athlete without my disability,” says Burnett, who was paralyzed below the waist in a car accident at the age of 5 and took up skiing seven years later.
“Paralympians are a unique group in sports,” says Ramona Hoh ’02, a three-time medalist for Canada who was born without fingers on her right hand. “Whatever it is that qualifies you to compete is not a liability, so you’re not disabled.”
Sarah Billmeier ’99
Won six world championships and 13 medals in four Games: 1992, 1994, 1998, 2002; two golds and a silver in 1992; a gold and two silvers in 2002.
Gave up competitive skiing in 2002 after graduating in 2001. She graduated from Harvard Medical School in 2006 and is working on a master’s in public health while training to become a thoracic surgeon. She lives with her husband, Michael Swanwick, in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts.
Diana Golden-Brosnihan ’84
Among her medals were 10 golds in World Disabled Ski Championships, 19 golds in U.S. Disabled Alpine Championships and a gold in the 1988 Calgary Olympics exhibition giant slalom.
After her retirement from competitive skiing she was inducted into the U.S. National Ski and the Women’s Sports Foundation Halls of Fame and became a motivational speaker. Having married Steve Brosnihan ’83 in 1997, she died in 2001 after a long battle with cancer.
Carl Burnett ’03
Adaptive alpine ski team member since 1998; competed in 2002 Salt Lake City and 2006 Torino Games.
Has been training in Oregon. After the 2010 Paralympics the self-described “resident nerd of the team” plans a career as a university librarian.
Martha Hill Gaskill ’82
Raced 1983-88; won exhibition giant slalom bronze at 1988 Calgary Games.
Has done motivational speaking —and in-school programming related to her role in the PBS series, The Second Voyage of the Mimi. She lives in Golden, Colorado, with her husband and two children.
Ramona Hoh ’02
As a member of the Canadian disabled team, she competed in 1994 Lillehammer and 1998 Nagano Games, winning three medals.
A biology major at Dartmouth, she recently completed her Ph.D. in cell biology at Stanford and is now considering post-doc programs.
Joe Walsh ’84
Won three world championship medals and a bronze in 1988 Paralympic Games at Innsbruck.
After working at the University of Vermont and Dartmouth, now lives in Colorado Springs, Colorado, where he’s managing director of the U.S. Olympic Committee Paralympics division.
Rob Walsh ’88
Won 19 gold, 10 silver and seven bronze medals as Nordic skier and biathlete in national championships; gold in 1988 Paralympic Games 15-kilometer Nordic; bronze in 1992 10-kilometer.
Works at the U.S. Army Cold Regions Research and Engineering Lab in Hanover, where he lives with wife, Tracy ’91, an assistant dean for development and administration at Dartmouth.