Most world-class athletes train for years in their sports but Beth Requist of Grand Lake didn’t know much about her chosen events until just a few years ago. And, in March, Requist will represent the United States in at least three skiing events at the Paralympic Games in Sochi Russia.,
On a recent weekend at Snow Mountain Ranch, under a bluebird Colorado sky, Requist charges down a cross-country trail, poles churning. Arriving at a shooting range, she lies down on the snow and takes aim through the scope of an air rifle.
Requist is training for the biathlon, a skiing-and-shooting event. The difference here is that she isn’t standing on her Nordic skis; instead her lower body is strapped into the black metal seat of a sitski, a device that allows paralyzed athletes to navigate the snow.
“I never thought I’d be competing at a high level and training this hard,” Requist said. “I never expected any of this, but it’s a good thing. It’s a good surprise.”
That good surprise comes after one very bad one. In August of 2011, during a leisurely raft trip on the Colorado River, Requist jumped off a high rock into the water, something she’d done many times before. This time it went wrong.
“Nobody knows really what happened,” she said. “I guess I hit kind of at an angle… and as soon as I hit the water I broke my back. I couldn’t feel my legs.”
Somehow Requist managed to swim to the raft, where a friend hoisted her aboard. She was flown by helicopter to St. Anthony’s Hospital in Lakewood and whisked into surgery.
“When I got out and woke up, they did tell me that I only had a one percent chance of ever walking again,” Requist said. “I was just thinking, ‘Well, I kind of screwed everything up by breaking my back.’ I was a flight attendant, so I guess I can’t do that anymore. I was thinking ‘Crap, this sucks,’ basically.”
Requist worked as a flight attendent for Southwest at the time of the accident. With that no longer a possibility, but she quickly found a new passion. Two months after the accident and starting to focus on rehab, she got in touch with the National Sports Center for the Disabled.
The NSCD, based in Winter Park, uses sports as therapy and recreation for those significantly touched by injury or disease. “Through this program, people can find that athleticism in themselves again,” said NSCD director Becky Zimmerman.
Requist, a recreational snowboarder, runner and biker before the accident, was soon learning how to charge along on the snow on a sit-ski, propelling herself forward using just her arms. But she wasn’t an immediate natural on the equipment.
Coach Mark Birdseye says Requist couldn’t ski ten meters when she first arrived.
“I was like ‘dude, I’m going to have to be very patient here,’” Birdseye recalled recently. His patience paid off, as Requist revealed a killer competitive streak behind her mild-mannered demeanor.
“You put her on a start line and she’s like ‘I’m going to kick your butt,’” Birdseye said. “She does that with every training session. Whatever it might be she’s there to throw down and win.”
He has a name for it: “therapeutic competition.” For “adaptive athletes” like Requist the desire to win becomes a part of the healing process.
Requist agrees that skiing has become central to her life.
“There comes a point where you just can’t look back, you can’t dwell on what was. You know, you have to look forward,” Requist said. “I just never really was mad about [the accident]. Just sad for a bit, and now I’m just making it work.”
After less than a year and a half of training, Requist has won three national championships and is now a rising star of the U.S. sitski team. If she excels at the World Cup in Canada this coming weekend, she could compete in six events, in Nordic skiing and biathlon, at the Paralympics in Sochi, Russia.