Living her life like its golden
It’s a number with a lot of significance for Paralympic sit skier Stephani Victor.
Less than one month ago, wearing bib No. 19, on that day in March, the Park City resident won her first Paralympic gold on the slalom course in Sestriere, Italy. It was also the day two years prior that she had won a World Cup race on the same course.
But 19 was also another memorable day for Victor. It was the day in December, 10 years ago, when a car pinned her between two cars in her own driveway and the resulting injuries forced an amputation of her legs.
"When you almost die and lose your legs the number sticks with you," Victor said.
Victor’s journey to Paralympic gold started about seven years ago. As a filmmaker and actress in Los Angeles, Victor had traveled to Park City to help one of her friends promote a non-Sundance film during the Sundance Film Festival in which she had a part. During her visit she was introduced to the National Ability Center (NAC) and took a skiing lesson with then Park City Disabled Ski Team (PCDST) coach Marcel Kuonen. The Swiss-born skiing expert saw something in Victor that he wanted to build on potential to become a world-class skier and a Paralympic medallist. Victor, who was in the midst of making a documentary about herself, figured it would nice ending to her film and agreed.
For Victor, the choice entailed a shift in career and a move to a new city, but she felt Kuonen’s passion feeding on her own. Up until then, she had just been working and figuring out life as a person without legs, but now she had a new vision on the ski hill.
"Things mean so much more when you know what you have to lose," Victor said.
And so the two began training together.
Kuonen soon made the commitment to become Victor’s private coach and prepare her for the 2002 Paralympics in Salt Lake City. The decision meant he had to leave the NAC and the PCDST position and Victor had to look for new sponsorship. Deer Valley took a chance on the fledgling ski racer and has been with her ever since.
"They’ve sponsored me since the very beginning," Victor said.
In the downhill in the Salt Lake Games, Victor sat at the top of the run with the goal just to finish. Then, the top skier crashed and Victor’s outlook changed.
"I realized I could win," Victor said.
The first-time Paralympian gave it all she had and finished with a bronze.
Victor was elated, but both she and Kuonen knew she could do better — knew that their journey together was far from over.
"It’s not just belief in your ability," Victor said. "It’s belief when the result isn’t there."
The two of them put all of their effort and energy next four years. Along the way, Victor won numerous World Cups, was the overall 2004 World Cup slalom champion and won the 2004 World Championship slalom title.
In the meantime, the two grew close, very close. So close that in 2004 on the glacier in Zermatt, a ski resort not far from Kuonen’s home, he proposed to Victor. The two were married at Deer Valley last fall.
At the start of this season, Victor knew she would have success, but she wasn’t sure how much. She won numerous second and third places on the World Cup Circuit in Korea and Japan the only American to finish on the podium for all four overall World Cup disciplines — but she wanted more.
"When your goal is to win, it’s a funny feeling to complain about second and third," Victor said.
Then, at the World Cup finals in Artesina, Italy, it finally happened. Victor won the slalom and earned enough points to be the 2006 overall World Cup slalom champion. It was the right thing at the right time for Victor who used the confidence to carry her into the Turin Games.
"Winning gives you the confidence to do a little more," Victor said. "It just clicks in your mind when you win, you will win again."
But she didn’t win again right away. In a downhill practice she hurt her wrist badly enough that she was taken to a nearby hospital and missed the race. Victor questioned her decision, as did her husband who told her the Swiss would have "wrapped it up and gone."
So, in her next race, the super G, she decided to tape herself and grit her way through it.
"At first I thought the super G wasn’t my race and then I thought it was the Olympics and I had to dig down and go for it," Victor said.
Plus, she knew she was going to hear about it for the rest of her life if she didn’t do it.
She took fourth.
That was not good enough.
Then, the giant slalom day arrived. Victor discovered she couldn’t make the turns and forfeited.
Victor woke up on March 19 — the number that kept defining her life and she wondered if she could suffer through the pain and compete in her best race.
"My life had prepared me. I know disappointment. I know pain," Victor said. "I let it go and went for it."
So, on the last day of the Paralympics in her last race, Victor "went for it," and won the gold medal. Except, she was the last to know. The scoreboard was broken and somehow Victor was being shown in second place. So she shook hands and mugged for camera and was headed out of the race area before the blind skiers started down the course. It took another Parkite, Paralympic announcer Michele Roepke blasting, "It’s Stephanie Victor from Park City with the gold " over the loudspeaker and fellow Paralympic skier Lacey Heward giving her kudos to shock Victor into the reality of her monumental accomplishment.
Victor had done it. Victor and Kuonen and all of their supporters had finally won the gold medal.
The win meant even more since the Paralympics finally decided to fall in line with the World Cup format of limiting disabled alpine skiing to three categories — stand, sit and blind — rather than a bevy of categories carefully catered to different levels of disability, a system that seemed to hurt the competitiveness and credibility of the sport.
"In order to be accepted as an elite sport, we must be the most competitive, with the highest level of qualification, just like in the Olympics," Victor said. "This medal means something, because you raced against the world field."
Now, even weeks later, Victor says she’s still figuring out how to own her success, but she is taking the opportunity to thank everyone and try and give something back.
"It was not the result," Victor said. "It’s everything leading up to it. It’s every single person that said, ‘We’re on board with you and your husband’s vision to win a Paralympic gold.’ I look at it and let it set in."
Kuonen has also been reflecting on the win.
"You’ve got to understand, when you want to achieve something, you’ve got to have the passion for it. The patience for it and the will for it," Kuonen said. "Thanks, Stephanie for opening my eyes to what is possible. You showed me it is possible to do it."
First and foremost, Victor gives the credit to her husband, but from there, she says that a lot of credit should go to Park City.
"The most support I have received is from Deer Valley, second, the NAC, then everyone from chiropractors to physical therapists to Rossignol," Victor said. "I’m absolutely grateful to this community. Park City attracts people from all over and a good group of people."
The story, or the documentary, as the case may be, doesn’t end here. Victor and Kuonen plan to continue until the 2007 World Championships in Klosters, Switzerland, an area just on the other side of Marcel’s home.
"In our minds, after the Paralympic gold, we figured we could race one more last race in Klosters," Victor said. "Hopefully I will have won the overall."
Seems likely. Thus Far, Victor hasn’t needed a script to find her happy endings.
Victor’s 2006 Victories
World Cup Races Yong Pyeong, Korea Jan. 23-27 Slalom Second Place Giant Slalom Third Place Giant Slalom Second Place Super G Third Place Super G Third Place World Cup Races Nagano (Shiga Kogen), Japan: Jan. 30-Feb 1 Giant Slalom Third Place Giant Slalom Third Place Slalom Second Place
World Cup Finals, Artesina, Italy Feb. 27 -March 3
Downhill Sixth Place Super G Fourth Place Giant Slalom Fourth Place Slalom First 2006 Paralympics, Turin, Italy March 10-19
Downhill DNS Super G Fourth Place Giant Slalom Fourth Place Slalom GOLD Overall World Cup Results 2006: Slalom First Place Giant Slalom Second Place Super G Third Place Overall Second Place
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