After discovering adaptive skiing in her 30s, Natalie St. Pierre has found a renewed sense of self (and now she can’t wait to try all the sports).
Alpine skiing always intrigued Natalie St. Pierre, but a slight fear of heights and a preference for warm weather made the sport less appealing. She was also diagnosed with cerebral palsy at the age of 2. The congenital disorder, usually due to brain injury or abnormal brain development, affects St. Pierre’s lower extremities. She gets around with the aid of crutches or a wheelchair.
“I wasn’t even aware how I could take part in downhill skiing or any other sport for that matter,” says 37-year-old St. Pierre. The how became clearer when she met her boyfriend, Cedar Miller, who also uses a wheelchair. “He joked that if I wanted to see him in the winter, I would have to take up skiing.”
Shortly after they began dating, Miller introduced St. Pierre to Maine Adaptive Sports & Recreation. Founded in 1982 as an alpine skiing program, the statewide non-profit organization now offers free education and training in a variety of seasonal sports for individuals with disabilities.
“I knew nothing. I had to buy ski pants, and I didn’t have any gear,” recalls St. Pierre. “But I was really excited and jumped at the chance to try.”
During her first ski season in 2015, volunteers with Maine Adaptive guided her through everything she needed to know and tips on acquiring the right gear. Due to St. Pierre’s limited mobility, the organization started her on a dual-ski. She sits cozily in a bucket seat that is mounted to an articulating device on top of a pair of skis. For added balance and steering, she uses hand-held “outriggers,” which are like ski poles but with miniature skis on the bottom rather than spikes. While St. Pierre shifts her body weight to steer the ski, a volunteer follows behind, attached to her with a tether, helping her control speed.
“When I took that first run—it was likely at Sugarloaf on Whiffle Tree—I thought, ‘I can do this, just once, and maybe I’ll never do it again,’” says St. Pierre. But she was hooked. “It was so exhilarating.”
During her first season skiing, St. Pierre and Miller made tracks at Sugarloaf, Saddleback and Sunday River. With each successful run, she felt more confident and took on more challenging terrain. By the end of the season, she skied one of the most difficult kind of trails—a black diamond—at Saddleback.
“Successfully making it down that trail with no issue, getting down to the bottom, I was completely elated. It was a huge, massive achievement,” says St. Pierre. “You ski more and more, and the more success you have, you’re empowered. I feel like an athlete now.”
“I really developed a stronger sense of pride of who I am. Now I can add athlete to that moniker, and I think that’s awesome.”
Growing up in Colorado, St. Pierre lived a normal childhood—aside from spending her summer vacations at Shriners Hospitals. Between the age of 2 and 16, she underwent 16 orthopedic surgeries to address complications brought on by cerebral palsy. She attended University of Maine Presque Isle, obtaining her degree in creative writing, and later moved to Waldo. She currently works as a customer support analyst at athenahealth in Belfast.
“I never knew much about adaptive sports. I knew they existed from the Paralympic Games,” she says. “I am just a late bloomer to adaptive sports.”
Maine Adaptive enabled approximately 500 children and adults with disabilities to experience winter and summer sports in 2016. During the organization’s 33rd annual Ski-A-Thon in March, more than $380,000 was raised. According to Director of Marketing Deb Maxfield, this annual event typically generates 50 percent of the organization’s annual operating budget.
Maxfield joined the organization’s staff in 2015, but was no stranger to its mission. Her grandparents were some of the first volunteers. Her mother followed in their footsteps and marked her 25th season with Maine Adaptive. As a staff member, Maxfield says, “One of the biggest things I see on a daily basis is the joy in the faces of participant athletes as they reconnect with
a sport they didn’t believe they would be able to try, enjoy or successfully take part in.”
Maine Adaptive Program Coordinator Alissa Towle says watching St. Pierre learn to ski was no different. “From the first day, she has been smiling. Natalie had no experience with skiing in sit-down equipment, but she was game for anything. She has worked steadily to improve her skill and independence with her skiing.”
With three years of skiing under her belt, St. Pierre admits the nerves have mostly been replaced by a sense of strength and assurance. “I just get better and better,” she says, giving a lot of credit to the crew of volunteers she skis with. “The crew we ski with, they are like family. They want to see us succeed as people and athletes.”
Prior to her skiing days, St. Pierre recalls getting involved with school activities, “but that’s when you realize your limitation.” So, when she couldn’t play a sport, she became the best sports fan and cheered on the teams. In fact, she remembers being featured on a local news station at the age of 10 because of her dream to be a cheerleader for Oklahoma University. “I always longed, in some way, to be physically part of a team and physically being active. It always eluded me.”
As St. Pierre approaches 40, she is grateful her disability is well managed and hopes to continue trying different activities offered by Maine Adaptive. Her 16-year-old daughter Trinity is her inspiration to continue trying different sports to stay in shape and maintain her health.
To an extent, St. Pierre wishes she would have discovered Maine Adaptive earlier on. “I don’t know if I would have been an Olympian, but I would have had more of a sense of self and confidence.”
“I really developed a stronger sense of pride of who I am,” says St. Pierre. “Now I can add athlete to that moniker, and I think that’s awesome.”
To learn more about adaptive sports offered in Maine, visit: maineadaptive.org.
Emma Bouthillette authored “A Brief History of Biddeford,” about her hometown. She is a yoga instructor and a corgi mom. (emmabouthillette.com)