Stephani Victor, Paralympic medalist, retires from alpine sit-ski racing
Stephani Victor is calling it quits.
After 20 years of sit-ski alpine racing and earning four Paralympic medals, the Parkite competed in her last professional race – the National Ability Center’s Huntsman Cup, on Jan. 16-18 at Park City Mountain.
Her career started after a car accident.
At 10:04 p.m. on Dec. 19, 1995 Victor was hit by a distracted driver, her legs crushed between the front of the driver’s car and the back of her ex-boyfriend’s car.
At that moment, her life was forever changed – to save her life, surgeons amputated her legs.
But the course of her life was about to change again.
In 1998, she came to Park City for the Sundance Film Festival, during which a friend was hosting a guerilla screening of a low-budget film she was in.
When she got to Park City, she booked a sit-ski lesson at the National Ability Center, and tried sit-skiing for the first time.
From the start she was ambitious, even listing “win a gold medal” as her goal on her evaluation sheet for her first-ever lesson.
Her coach that day, Marcel Kounen, who is able bodied, looked at the sheet in the office, and wondered about who he would meet when he went out to coach her.
He remembers that she was talented yet untrained, and also that she was beautiful – with light blond hair and blue eyes.
“On the other hand, winning a gold medal is not a goal, you have to be specific about what gold medal you want to win,” he recalled saying to Victor. “So here is a goal: Olympics and Paralympics are coming here in 2002. Why don’t you write down winning a Paralympic gold medal?”
On the slopes, Victor fell in love with the sport. She loved how different skiing was from her recent life experiences, how the slopes in Park City were nothing like the walls of her hospital rooms, and how much freedom she had while riding.
Victor crossed out her original goal, and wrote in its place: “Winning a Paralympic gold medal.”
From that day on, Victor was hooked.
She came back to the NAC shortly after Sundance, and hired Kounen full time
Then, Victor made a proposal at the end of the season.
“Why don’t we keep skiing?” Victor asked.
“You’re funny, but we need to follow the snow,” Kounen replied.
He estimated that Victor’s opponents would have at least 10 years skiing 100 days per season, so she would have to travel the globe chasing powder to catch up with her opponents over the next three years.
In short, Victor’s goal was only achievable if she was willing to work extremely hard.
“What he didn’t know is that I love hard work,” Victor said. “I was no stranger to the idea that if you want to be good at something, you have to get up before your competition and train longer. And that’s been my philosophy my whole career.”
The two teamed up and darted around the globe in search of skiing.
“Until the Salt Lake games, we skied between 250 and 270 days (a year),” Kounen said.
Her training quickly started to pay off.
In 2000, she won the U.S. Paralympics Alpine Skiing National Championship slalom competition.
In 2002, she won the season’s first World Cup competition, and stood on the podium 13 times over the rest of the series.
Then, at the her first shot at the goal she was working toward, the 2002 Paralympics in Salt Lake City, she took bronze in downhill sit-skiing.
She kept pushing for gold.
At the International Paralympic Committee Alpine Skiing World Championships in 2004 she took first in slalom, second in super-G and third in downhill, and was the World Cup slalom champion.
Then, in 2005, she and Kounen married.
“When I met Marcel, I didn’t really know he was the one I was going to marry, but I knew that any bit of my life I spent with him would have meaning,” Victor said.
Shortly after, Victor achieved the goal that she had jotted down on an evaluation form eight years earlier. On the last day of the Turin Paralympics, she took first in slalom.
“Six months after we got married, I won the gold,” She said. “Had I known that was the reason, I would have married him sooner.”
Victor followed up her 2006 gold with another in super combined and silver medals in slalom and giant slalom in Vancouver, which she said might be the crowning achievement of her career, because it demonstrated her skill in both a speed and technical event.
Since then, she has continued to be competitive at World Cups, and competed in the 2014 Sochi Paralympics and the 2018 Paralympics in South Korea.
But just as important as the results are the way Victor and Kounen compete.
“If you want to be a winner you have to develop those characteristics, those values, prior to anyone putting a gold medal around your neck,” Victor said at the finish area of the Huntsman Cup. “I’ve seen a lot of gold medals go around necks of people who I don’t consider winners because of who they are on and off the field. You can be a winner in life based on the choices you make, and that for me has always been my priority.”
But a good philosophy did not make it easier to give up the sport.
She said for years racing has been a way for her and her fellow competitors to reckon with their inequities.
“That’s why I’ve had such a hard time giving it up,” she said. “I’ve still had so much work to do on myself personally. But there’s nothing like ski racing to keep you in the now.”
From the moment Victor pushes out of the starting gate, she said her mind is focused on the moment, on dealing with what is happening in each second.
“I absolutely love that, because I think that’s as close as you get to God,” she said.
Her decision to leave competition was difficult, but she said it was time.
Though she will never stop seeing herself as an athlete (“That’s who I am,” she said), Victor has been putting pressure on herself to perform well, to get up earlier and train harder than her competition, for 20 years.
On the morning before the start of the Huntsman Cup – the race she started with all those years ago – she said she felt that weight lift, and was enveloped in a sense of calm.
She recognizes that the burden was likely of her own making, but that’s what it takes to win.
“People who are strong mentally, I think have the greatest capacity; the greatest facility, to really turn it up when it counts,” she said. “I think I was one of those people, but I worked at it, and it’s possible, anybody can do it.”
Now, she’s letting someone else pick up that mantle.
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