Q&A with the 2X Paralympic Medalist
Lacey Heward is a former member of the U.S. Paralympic Alpine National Team, a World Champion, two-time Paralympic medalist and X Games medalist. She was interviewed by Brynn Duncan, a member of Disabled Sports USA’s E-Team. The interview took place at the 30th annual The Hartford Ski Spectacular in Breckenridge, Colorado.
Lacey: I had an accident when I was a baby. I was 16 months old, and a large weight fell and crushed my spine at the T-9 level. It was partial, so I’m partially paralyzed. I have some feeling and movement in my legs.
Brynn: What’s your biggest inspiration? When you first started skiing, what made you want to do it?
Lacey: I really wanted to learn how to ski, first of all, so that I could go skiing with my family. All my family liked to ski and snowboard. They do a ton of stuff, like all kinds of outdoor recreation. But skiing was the one thing that I didn’t know how to do or adapt so I learned how to ski. And then I wanted to be able to do it independently. I wanted to be a really good skier, so that I could ski the whole mountain by myself. I was 14, so that was pretty important to me.
Brynn: You started skiing when you were 14?
Lacey: I did. That was my first time skiing, and I took to it pretty quickly because I had been doing a lot of other things, like wheelchair racing, I climbed with my sisters, did some water skiing, and was pretty active as a kid. I found out that the best skiers on the mountain were Ski Patrol, so I thought, “How do I become Ski Patrol?” But there weren’t any mono skiers on Ski Patrol, so I found out that the best skiers were ski racers. That was actually why I became interested in ski racing. I just wanted to be able to ski my whole local mountain, which was Bogus Basin in Boise, Idaho.
Lacey: I’m pretty competitive…mostly with myself. I played basketball when I was a kid, and then in elementary school I liked competing. I tried to do the most pull ups in school, and the PE competition and all that stuff. I was pretty good at it. I grew up with a ton of siblings, and we were always competing. I just had this streak in me… this part of me that nobody knew about. Where the rest of the world saw me as this cute little girl in a wheelchair, this fiery fierceness would come out in competition. And I really liked the challenge of it. It was hard, and then it was so much fun too, to ski.
Brynn: After you figured out that you were good at the sport, and you went on to compete in the Paralympics, did you podium?
Lacey: Yeah. I got 2 bronze medals in the Paralympics in 2002.
Brynn: When you were on the podium, how did it feel?
Lacey: Where are you at in your ski racing?
Brynn: I just finished my 3rd race, and it’s the first race I’ve ever actually made it through the finish line. So, that’s where I’m at right now.
Lacey: What races were those?
Brynn: Empire State Games. The Huntsman Cup. Panorama, last week.
Lacey: Good for you! What was the first race that you finished?
Lacey: Good! That was for points?
Lacey: So, all those races leading up to the Paralympics were exactly what you’re going through. It’s hard to put into words what that Paralympic feeling felt like, because as you know, the whole work up to that point was so hard. It was so much of a challenge. I had an amazing coach. She’s not coaching anymore, but she was my coach at the time at the National Ability Center. I ended up having to move to get into a good program that could coach me well, and so I moved to Park City with the National Ability Center. And just worked my tail off to go to every race. I didn’t have any money, I didn’t even have a very good monoski, so you’re already way ahead of the game. All of that hard work and grit paid off, so sitting up there at the top of the race hill at the Paralympics, that’s what I thought about. All of those races, all of those times that I carried my monoski, that I carried my skis, that I wore the most hideous downhill suit you’ve ever seen…it looked like a dirty snowball. And just used helmets and used gear. When I podiumed I had the ugliest ski you’ve ever seen, cause it had this laminate on it. I skied in monoskis that were three times too big for me. So, that’s what I thought about. I thought about how far I had come to get to that point, where I was finally able to fit in all my gear, I finally had a US ski team jacket, I finally had my Paralympic uniform. And, I was looking at all the flags from all the countries that were blowing in the wind at the top of the race course. It was so euphoric. All these languages being spoken by all the tuners, and they’re scraping the skis, and all the murmuring of the coaches, and their going over the courses with their athletes in so many languages. I was just like, “Oh my gosh…I’m here! This girl from Boise, ID… I’ve made it. I did it. I cannot believe I did it.” And getting from the top of the mountain, and then crossing the finish line, it just hit me over the head like a ton of bricks, “I’m a Paralympian. For the rest of my life.” And it’s something that no one can take away from me. Ever. My health might get worse in my lifetime, a whole bunch of crud might happen to me, maybe I’ll come in and out of money, I don’t know. In and out of love. Whatever happens in my life, being a Paralympian is something that no one can ever ever take away from me. And then, being on the podium was just the icing on the cake. When they handed me my flowers, and they put the medal around my neck. My family’s in the crowd. My friends are in the crowd. I couldn’t believe how many people were there at the Paralympics, first of all. I was blown away by how many people were there for us. And they’re cheering, and they all start singing our National Anthem. I just lost it. It was just the most proud moment. We don’t get an opportunity to serve our country in a lot of ways. But that is a way that we do. And so to earn a medal for our country is just breath taking.
Brynn: When you look back on it, and all the people who told you couldn’t do it, and all that stuff…and you were there…and wow, it’s just crazy to me. I think that’s the coolest thing.
Lacey: Yeah, my dad wanted me to be a secretary. He wanted me to learn how to type, and be a good receptionist. Those were jobs he felt like I could do. But my dad was there at the Paralympics, and he came up to me after I won my second Bronze Medal, and with tears he said, “I see you. I know who you are.” And that felt better than anything.
Brynn: What have you seen change in the sport since you competed in the 2002 Paralympic Games?
Lacey: Well, at the time…right after those Paralympics, the athletes started receiving sponsorship money from individual companies, which was fantastic. It really helped us be able to compete and pay our way, because you’re basically a full-time athlete. Now, athletes can specialize in tech events or speed events, which is fantastic. Athletes on the US Paralympic Team earn money based on their placement on the team, which is great because then you have some kind of funding to help you continue to do your job and do it well. You can also get sponsorships from individual sponsors that you secure yourself. The coaching has improved. The team has great resources outside of Aspen, CO and the Olympic Training Center. And the governing body for the team is US Paralympics, instead of USSA or US Ski Team, so that’s a little different. And I think it could be better now. I don’t know, because I was on the team when it was under US Ski Team/US Adaptive Ski Team. We were sort of at the bottom of the barrel, as far as allocated monies, but now US Paralympics do a really great job supporting their athletes.
Brynn: When you go skiing, what do you enjoy most about it?
Lacey: I love being able to go anywhere on the mountain, and feel confident that I have the skills to be able to get on and off the chairlift myself; independently. I can ski with my family when I want to. I feel like a confident, independent skier. And have fun.
Brynn: You talked about your singing and song writing. What do you enjoy about that?
Lacey: It’s always been a passion of mine. I’m not going to lie, being on the ski team being a professional athlete, it wasn’t always easy. There are some things that are challenging. Being a competitor, you have other competitors that sometimes hate your guts because you’re really good at what you do. And then traveling can be really challenging sometimes. You’re dedicated to what you’re doing, and so music was always a way for me to come back to myself. Come back to my soul. Reground me. Regroup me. Get back on the path of what I’m doing. It was also a way for me to reconnect myself to my purpose, which I always felt was to inspire other people to do what they love to do, and find their passion, and follow that passion.
Lacey: One of the best things that a coach told me was, “It’s YOUR race. When you are on that hill, and you are giving it you’re all, it’s YOUR race.” And I have taken that and translated it into all aspects of my life. And I still use it. It’s my race. This is MY race. So, you’re going to have coaches tell you stuff right in the starting gate. They don’t mean to. They don’t mean to throw you off your game. You’re going to have competitors come up and say things to you that are not nice. Things happen, and you have to be able to let it roll off of you. If you let it dig into your skin, and you can’t handle it, then it can really throw you off. You have to have thick skin, and it has to be your race. Every DAY has to be your race, even if you’re not in the race course. Ski racing is so fantastic because it is about the race, right? But when you’re off of the race course, it’s about racing, too. It’s about your life. It’s about your career. So when you’re here at Ski Spectacular, and you’re meeting all these fantastic people from DSUSA and all these organizations from all over, this is like the perfect time for you to really get your career going. To network with them. Tell them what you want to do. Tell them about your race. This is what I’m doing. This is what I want. This is what I’ve accomplished so far. This is where I’m going. This is what I need. If you treat every day like it’s your race, your course, you’re going to do fine. You’re going to do excellent.
Brynn: I like that. That’s really good. I feel like as a ski racer we get thrown off by “oh, the snow’s not good today. I can’t ski well on this.” I know I get stuck on it a lot, so that was a really good answer.
Lacey: We had a coach, who took us up to Mt. Hood. It was summer time, but you would think it was the dead of winter. It was terrifying. You could barely see your hand in front of your face. And we skied that day…I think I only skied like 2 or 3 runs. But I will never forget it, because it helped me realize that I can ski in just about any condition. Sometimes you have to.
Brynn: In what moment did you find out “I’m going to the Paralymipcs. I’m going to be a Paralympian.”?
Lacey: I went to a World Cup race in Kimberly, Canada, and I had some heavy hitter competition. I was pretty good at Slalom, and this was the worst day of skiing ever. It was raining, the Slalom course was sheer ice, but I finished the first run and half the field crashed. And I thought, “Oh, my gosh. This is my opportunity. I could actually finish this race. And if I finish this race, I might podium.” I still didn’t know what that meant, but I knew it meant good things for my career. I was terrified at the start, so I did this hilarious thing where I talk to myself all the way down the race course and told myself not to fall.
Brynn: I do that, too! You’re not alone on that one.
Lacey: I finished the race. I think there’s two other women that did, but I finished in first place. When I got the gold medal, it sealed my fate to get on the ski team, which I needed to do in order to go to Paralympics. I think it was a week later, we had US Nationals. And at the time, I needed to be able to podium at Nationals to get the points to go to Paralymipcs. And so, I did again. I podiumed in two more races, in first place, and that helped me to be able to basically prove to the coaches that I can do this. And then the following season, right before Paralympics is when I got the points to be able to go. And so I really didn’t know until the coaches said, “these are the names that are going to the Paralympics.” But I knew that once I got on the team, which was at Nationals, that there was a really good chance that I was going. And that was the coolest moment, because we had this huge party at the end of Nationals and there were fireworks, and I felt like the fireworks were just for me. I know they weren’t, but it was really cool.
Brynn: What was your biggest fear in the race course?
Lacey: Falling. It was always falling. Slipping on ice or not being able to turn my skies. Brand new race skis are really stiff, and in a race course on the ice it’s challenging to turn brand new stiff race skis. So, I would usually get new race skis the end of the last season so that I could ski on them all summer and the fall, so that they were all nice and soft by the ski season. I got new skis every season bcause I would wreck them by the end of the year.
Brynn: I just wrecked my first pair of slalom skis. That was fun. So then, outside of the course, what’s your biggest fear?
Lacey: I’m pretty shy, actually. I get really nervous talking to people and telling them what I want and what I need. I had a very challenging time in my early 20s, to network. It’s something that I’m much better at in my 30s. It’s something I regret not getting better at and practicing. I realize now that it takes work and it takes practice. That was my biggest fear, at the time, was really being an effective communicator.
Brynn: Other than singing, song writing, and skiing, what are your favorite things to do?
Lacey: In the summer time, I just fell in love with water skiing. Oh my gosh, it’s really fun. Mountain biking…I just fell in love with that three summers ago. My husband’s a dog musher, he does sled dog racing, and I’ve kind of gotten into that. That’s really fun. I love the dogs.
Brynn: So, you’re married, right? Do you want kids/plan to have kids?
Lacey: We don’t have kids and I can’t have children. I retired in 2006 from ski racing because I got really sick, and needed a kidney transplant. And that occurred in 2010, so I was doing dialysis up until 2010, but I was doing it while I was still ski racing, which is kind of nuts. I do not recommend it.
Brynn: I just want to keep talking to you…you’re really cool. You’re so interesting!
Lacey: Well, I’m really excited for you. I want to follow your career and everything. I would love to connect with you.