Sarah Holm doesn’t instantly bring to mind the mental image of a ski racer. The soft-spoken 20-year-old admittedly enjoys the camaraderie of her team and the support from those in the industry more than she necessarily thrives on competition.
She laughs while confessing that until last year “I was afraid to go fast, which as you can imagine is a problem for a racer.”
But for all of her modesty, ski racing is in Sarah Holm’s blood. Sarah started skiing with her family in Wisconsin at age five and was racing by age six with her dad as her coach. They trained together for six years, but all of that threatened to come to an end when at age twelve Sarah developed tethered cord syndrome, a condition where tumors attach themselves to the spinal cord.
After four years of surgeries aimed at stopping their growth, the tumors kept returning. So in 2009, at the age of 16, Sarah and her parents chose to remove the lower part of her spine. The surgery caused Sarah to lose the use of her legs, but it didn’t keep her from skiing. Just a few short months after her surgery, Sarah was back out on the slopes with the Breckenridge Outdoor Education Center, a chapter of Disabled Sports USA, learning to monoski.
A year later, Sarah attended Disabled Sports USA’s The Hartford Ski Spectacular as a race camp participant. “It was my very first big event with disabled athletes, and where I first learned about the U.S. Paralympics and met athletes who were like me,” she says.
It was at that event where Sarah met Erik Peterson, a coach with the National Sports Center for the Disabled (NSCD), a chapter of Disabled Sports USA. “I went over to the Copper NorAm races with Erik after Ski Spectacular and he told me that if I loved it, he would do his best to help me in any way he could,” she says.
While Sarah was in high school she continued to do most of her training in Wisconsin, but after graduation she moved out to Colorado to train full time with Erik and the NSCD team. “It was a huge stepping stone to move and become a full-time athlete,” she says.
All of her training culminated in Sarah being named to the U.S. Paralympic Development Team in 2012, allowing her to travel around the world to race. Her favorite part was becoming a part of the close team dynamic.
“Being in the atmosphere of ski racing, it’s great to have a whole team support,” she says. “A lot of it really has to do with the people I get to hang out with all of the time. It’s motivation to compete.”
After an injury-ridden 2013 season, Sarah has returned to the sport with better than expected results and hopes to take home a few titles. “I’m skiing better than I ever have. As great as I had hoped given my shoulder injury last season,” she says.
Sarah has skied so well during the first part of the season that she won a wild card entry to compete in the World Cup races taking place in Copper Mountain, Colo. January 17-20. The event will be one of the last chances to qualify for the U.S. Paralympic team that will head to Sochi in March.
As for next season, Sarah plans to take some time off from training to head back to school. She’s been attending college online, but is looking forward to taking classes in person next fall while studying recreation management. Her hope is to stay involved in the sport, whether that’s through racing or coaching.
Her first coaching tip for those looking to get involved in skiing is to take advantage of every opportunity, particularly those chances to speak with veterans in the sport.
“Don’t be afraid to talk to people and learn what it’s like,” she says. “I wasn’t really as outgoing, and I missed out on a lot of really good instruction and advice. When I joined the team, I realized they were just athletes like me.”
For now, Sarah is still excited to continue her journey as a Paralympic hopeful.
“I’m finally getting comfortable. I’m just taking it one season at a time. I’m never going to stop, but maybe just won’t be at the high level,” she says.