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The Freedom To Go Fast

How Ski Racing Knocks Down More Than Just Gates

Backcountry partners with the National Ability Center (NAC) around our shared mission of breaking down barriers to the outdoors. Based in Park City, Utah, the NAC empowers individuals of all abilities from across the globe through outdoor recreation. To support their work, we feature stories about adaptive athletes and serve as an outfitter of NAC athletes and guides.

Saylor O’Brien is an 18-year-old Paralympic hopeful and part of the National Ability Center’s High-Performance Team since 2015. She’s a multi-bronze medalist in slalom, giant slalom, and super-G, including her very first super-G in Panorama, Canada. With plans to compete in the 2022 Paralympics as a sit skier, she’s found the support and training of the NAC High-Performance Team critical to her success.

What are a few of your favorite things about being on skis?

Accessibility, diversity, and independence … and obviously the freedom to go fast! I grew up trying multiple sports as a kid to find what I liked to do that could keep me active. I was on a competitive swim team for parts of my pre-teen years—I hated it! All the kids looked exactly the same, except for me. I was made fun of and laughed at. In winter sports in general, that changes. You can be on a snowboard or you can be on skis. You can be tall or short. Fast or slow. Able-bodied or with a different ability. I can wholeheartedly be ME when I ski!

“I’m so lucky to be skiing almost every day and that alone is my motivation to keep living.”

If you could pick only one mountain to ride for the rest of your life, which would be your top choice? And, are there any ski destinations you have yet to visit that are on your list?

Outside of Utah, I’d ski Mt. Hood, Oregon. In Utah, I’d ski Alta for the rest of my life. Switzerland, Japan, and Italy are at the top of my list to go ski someday.

What are your top goals as an athlete? 

  1. Experience multiple Paralympic games (placing would be even better)
  2. Explore the different lifestyles and cultures people experience as I travel
  3. Be an advocate for other women and girls around the world
  4. Never forget that I am just as human as the next person and they are just as much of a human being as me

Who in your life has been your biggest inspiration?

Two people come immediately to mind: Bethany Hamilton, a pro surfer with one arm, and Anthony Robles, a one-legged wrestler. 

I grew up watching “Soul Surfer” as a kid and I absolutely fell in love with Bethany and still live by her quote: “I don’t need easy, I just need possible.” She definitely contributed to my love of sports and also gave me hope when things got tough.

“I don’t care what’s probable. Through blood, sweat, and tears, I am unstoppable.” You’ve mentioned this quote in multiple interviews and it’s so inspiring! How did you first discover these words, originally written for Anthony Robles? 

Anthony’s “Unstoppable” quote was hanging in my home at a very young age. My family is a big wrestling family, so it became a mantra for us. Once I could read most of the words, it was routine to recite them every morning before school and before long I had it memorized! Not only is it inspiring in the sports world, but it also motivated me, as I was born with a significantly different external body. Anthony’s words made me feel less alone and also taught me how to approach life’s challenges and trials. I had to face everything head-on, even if it meant tears.

“I can wholeheartedly be ME when I ski!”

Tell us a little about your training routine for the 2022 Winter Paralympics—and do you have any special rituals on the day of a big race?

My typical training days are Monday through Friday, 9am to 2pm, with the National Ability Center and my coach Eric Leirfallom. Gate training, drills, routine prep, timing, video analysis–and also fun! My rituals tend to be on the more psychological side. Something I must have on a race day is something to smell. I usually use essential oils and rub them in my hands and put a little on the nose to keep me present and calm. My anxiety tends to get riled up when I’m racing and tricks me into thinking that what I’m experiencing isn’t real. If I have something to smell, then I can feel grounded, real, and in the moment.

Which three items in your gear closet do you reach for most often?

  1. Snacks–my favorites include black pepper sunflower seeds and dark chocolate KIND bars. 
  2. Speed suit and helmet–I’m so used to wearing them all the time, it feels weird without them. 
  3. Backcountry fleece jacket—it’s my favorite piece of gear. I wear it all the time.

Two summers ago you were in an ATV crash and faced a tricky recovery. Have your training habits and motivations changed at all as a result?

They’ve changed more on the mental side. Sometimes I do get a little triggered. I’m more aware of how fast things can change in the blink of an eye. It’s hard not to consider every bad outcome that could happen and to think I could be in the hospital within the next few minutes, hours, days, or weeks. However, I simply cannot live every day with fear, so I take the time to appreciate exactly where I’m at. I’m so lucky to be skiing almost every day and that alone is my motivation to keep living.

 “I had to face everything head-on, even if it meant with tears.”

Aside from skiing, what are some of other ways you love to get outside?

I also like rock climbing and sled hockey, but if I’m not being active you’ll probably find me in my room doing some form of art! I like to paint and draw and just create. I very much need this part of me to get whatever I need out of my head and down on paper or canvas. I also use music to process my mental and emotional well-being. It helps me sort through the chaos.