Last week, 50 Para-Alpine, Snowboard and Nordic skiers from the UK Armed Forces Para Sports Team came to Snow Mountain Ranch (SMR) to record K’s at SMR’s Nordic Center and hit the slopes of Winter Park Resort in their various disciplines under the brilliant spring sun. Some currently serve in the Royal Air Force, British Army or Royal Navy; others are veterans. They vary in age, ability and experience, but are united by a common goal of leading the way in snow sports. These are no ordinary snow enthusiasts, nor have they vacationed in Grand County. Instead, they are all para-athletes, including six who competed at the Paralympic Games in Beijing.
All athletes were medically released from military service following life-altering injuries. Some of their disabilities came about during combat or in wider service. And all of them now express themselves through sliding on snow. Instead of focusing on their disability, however, everyone will tell you that when they ski or snowboard they celebrate their ability and freedom from the environment.
A British Army officer and CEO of British Biathlon, Elizabeth Winfield, originally founded the British Para-Nordic Team to get veterans on skis. Within 18 months, Winfield took Britain’s first Para-Nordic team to the Paralympic Games. She also started a development program with athlete Jonny Huntington, who joined her as part of the Paralympic-inspired program and recently competed in Grand County. Winfield is joined by coaches with extensive experience who help each athlete achieve their dream.
Before COVID-19 hit, the team made several trips a year to ski resorts around the world, but Snow Mountain Ranch is the first place they’ve visited after the big co-op of 2020-21. SMR is the only place they found that allows them to access all sites from one place. Athletes love the regenerative quality of snow sports and the freedom they find flying downhill – or overland – over snow. SMR is the place to be, they say, because Nordic athletes can ski endless runs to their heart’s content, and alpine and snowboard athletes can descend vertically with the National Disabled Sports Center in Winter Park.
NSCD coach Mark Birdseye works with elite para-athletes at SMR and initially hosted a group of UK athletes and coaches over Thanksgiving in 2015-16. That season, a British sit-skier named Scott Meenagh contacted him about a visit, and Birdseye coached him individually. Meenagh has since skied to the top 10 at the last two Paralympic Games.
Six athletes have just returned from a competition at the Paralympic Games in Beijing, including three seated alpine skiers, two Nordic skiers and a snowboarder. They inspire those who have just hit the slopes and slopes for the first time. All athletes, regardless of level, continued to push their own limits and demonstrate what is possible when the right mindset is paired with the right coaches. All-volunteer coaches push athletes to achieve their personal goals while cultivating talent and overcoming challenges. The whole team shared military foundations and the camaraderie was amazing to see during their time at SMR.
Winfield’s goal is to grow the SMR event and increase participation by veterans from the United States, Canada and Europe.
“We have proven the concept of the event in this amazing venue and can’t wait to get back there and start planning for next year,” she said. “Sport unites us and creates friendships. Together we can demonstrate a life without limits. The work carried out by the Armed Forces Para Snowsport Team has a higher purpose. It helps us to access the best of ourselves, whatever the circumstances that tried to handicap us before our first experiences on snow.