KILLINGTON — There are those rare, transformative events that people experience in life, moments that serve as touchstones and turning points along their journey, and Killington Mountain School student-athlete, Spencer Wood recently participated in what ended up being a life-altering event for him–the Hartford Ski Spectacular hosted at Breckenridge Ski Resort by Disabled Sport USA.
Most people do not know that Spencer, a 12th grade, U18 Alpine athlete from Pittsfield, Vt., had a stroke before he was born. Diagnosed at 18 months old, doctors said that Spencer Wood had a left brain stroke in utero, resulting in right side hemiplegia, which is total or partial paralysis of one side of the body. He wore an ankle brace as a child, until Pre-K, and yet his parents did not tell Wood about the stroke until he was in fourth grade and started playing baseball.
“I became aware of differences between myself and my teammates when I looked around the field,” Wood shared. His parents’ philosophy was to let him learn how to adapt to his physical challenges on his own, without falling back on his disability as a crutch or an excuse.
Wood demonstrated his love for skiing early on and was actually the first 5-year-old to be part of the Killington Ski Club Hopefuls program.
His mom comments, “Spencer never even hesitated when he began skiing with the Hopefuls. Those early years were very important to fueling his passion for skiing.” Spencer Wood moved through the Hopefuls program, to the three-day KSC/KMS program, and ultimately became a full-term KMS student. In the end, his determination and strength, along with his passion and love for skiing led him down a path to elite competition, one that includes world-travel and racing alongside some of the best in the sport.
Wood comments on one aspect that he enjoys about skiing, “It is a lot harder to tell that I am a disabled athlete when I’m on skis compared to when I’m participating in other sports. I run with a limp so my right side challenges are more pronounced in sports that include running, but are not as obvious in skiing.”
When it comes to skiing, Wood’s right ankle mobility in his boot is not as strong, and when he is standing on his right ski for right footed turns, it can be challenging for him to move his ski. “I don’t fall back on that as an excuse though,” he comments. “I train like an able-bodied athlete so that people don’t beat me.”
In USSA skiing, head injury and stroke are one of the categories that qualify as adaptive. Several years ago, KMS Coach Jack Bailey first floated the idea past Wood to see if participating in adaptive events would interest him, but he was dead-set against the idea. In his mind, he just didn’t see himself in that way.
KMS Coach Greg Hadley worked with the US Disabled Ski Team many years ago, and as a result he possesses great insight into the adaptive ski world. Hadley slowly began talking to Spencer about disabled skiing. Both Jack and Greg know that “adaptive” athletes come in all forms, and this could very well be a gateway to bigger and better things for Wood. In addition, Coach Tom Sell encouraged him to explore his options in the disabled racing world.
So Wood started to warm up to the idea of participating in an adaptive race in the last year or two, but there are no events held in the East.
Vermont Adaptive, headquartered at Pico, was helpful with giving him information about possible events. This summer, his mother asked him if he might be interested in attending an event she’d heard about, called “The Hartford.” He immediately agreed; the timing was good for him as it fell during that last week of KMS race camp at Mammoth.
“When I first came to KMS, I hoped to eventually pursue skiing in Disabled Sport USA events, but I always wondered if I was ‘above it’ or too able-bodied to participate. Last year, I spent a semester abroad in Austria and when I returned, I decided it was time. I was finally ready to give adaptive skiing a shot,” he said. “I figured, ‘Why not? I should try this,’ and I realized I probably should have been doing it all along.”
When asked if he was nervous about the Hartford, Spencer saif, “Not really nervous, no. I just had no idea what to expect. It was an entirely new experience for me.” His father traveled to the event with him, and upon arriving in Breckenridge, Wood met with event organizers who reviewed his medical history and did some physical testing in order to classify him. He was classified as a LW9, Level 2 athlete, meaning he is a standing skier with significant impairment in one leg.
Wood says the athletes at this competition were an incredibly inspiring group, and that he made friends there that he will have for life. He hit it off with an athlete from GMVS, who is a partial hip amputee due to childhood cancer, and another athlete from Chile who has a prosthetic leg. Wood spent most of his time skiing with these two athletes, whom he said were fast and amazing competitors. The coach working with these young men told them he had never been able to work with such fast, technical skiers.
One athlete Wood met, Ralph Green from the United States Disabled Ski Team, gave him some words of advice that stuck with him. “If I can give you any advice about this, it would be don’t do it for team; don’t do it for the jacket; do it to be the best in the world,” he said. Green’s words really resonated with Wood, as he was essentially articulating a parallel mindset to the one that he had all along when it comes to ski racing competition, disabled or not.
Wood ended up winning a gold medal in the Youth category, and a silver in Teams at the Hartford, taking the first place spot by just seconds over the athlete from Chile. Winning the race was a great experience, but what was even more exciting was that Wood was told that he has a very real shot at qualifying for the 2018 Winter Paralympics in Korea. He will continue to race USSA races with KMS, and will additionally attend the Winter Park Disabled NorAm in January, other disabled races in February, and Nationals in March at Loon.
Wood reflected on the experience, saying “My KMS teammates and coaches have been huge supporters of this, and I am so grateful. I am so thankful for my family, too, who has stood behind me since day one. Going to this event, I saw everyone from war heroes to Boston bombing victims, and they all put their disabilities aside to go ski. I am truly fortunate to have met the people I met.”
Upon his return from the Hartford, Wood made a choice to begin speaking more openly about his disability and the impact this event has had on his life. “When I returned from the Hartford, I began talking about my experience publicly, via Facebook, which was big for me. This event was a game changer. I have a new appreciation for disabled racing and am very humbled by what people can do without ever letting limitations stand in their way. I am so awestruck with the opportunities that lie ahead.”