Kendall Gretsch is an expert at many things considering she is a four time Paralympic gold medalist in both the summer and winter games, but there is one thing she had never done until Friday, March 25: downhill ski.
On a picturesque, spring day at Breckenridge Ski Resort, Gretsch got her chance to catch some speed as the team at the Breckenridge Outdoor Education Center guided her and a few of her paratriathlon teammates through a fun-filled day of downhill skiing.
Born with spina bifida, the Downers Grove, Illinois native began participating in athletic events from an early age. Gretsch, a 2010 graduate of Downers Grove North High School, began swimming and ended up competing on the Trojans’ swim team throughout high school.
It was during Gretsch’s sophomore year of college at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri when she started training for triathlons. Since then, Gretsch has become one of the most well-known para athletes on the competitive circuit, making a name for herself in three separate disciplines – paratriathlon, biathlon and cross-country skiing.
Over the last four years, Gretsch has won four gold medals, a silver and a bronze on the Paralympic stage.
The past year has been especially busy for Gretsch. She competed in Tokyo at the Summer Paralympic Games, taking home a gold in the women’s wheelchair classification of the paratriathlon event before she began training for and competed in the Winter Paralympic Games in Beijing months later.
In Beijing, Gretsch was unstoppable, winning a gold, silver and a bronze in the women’s para biathlon.
Gretsch now lives in Colorado Springs and trains daily at the Olympic Training Center. Despite Gretsch’s cross-country skiing skills and proximity to the mountains of Colorado, she had never tried downhill, until Friday.
The first order of business upon arriving at Peak 9 was getting Gretsch fitted on her mono ski. Breckenridge Outdoor Education Center ski program director Jeff Inouye helped with the process to ensure Gretsch was prepared to shred down the mountain.
The process took a while since Inouye explained that Gretsch needed to fit into the seat of the mono ski like a foot in a boot. If the fit isn’t right, there is a chance that the skier won’t have the necessary control since the skier’s body needs to be lined up perfectly square with the slope.
During the fitting process, Gretsch waited in quiet anticipation.
“I never have been on a mono ski before, so I am pretty stoked to try it out,” Gretsch said. “I feel like I am going to fall a lot, but I am excited.”
Soon enough, Gretsch was waiting in the QuickSilver lift line, not knowing exactly what to expect since cross-country skiers are used to doing the work themselves to get up hills.
Despite being nervous, Gretsch made her first chair lift look easy as she positioned the seat of her mono ski on the moving chair lift with minimal help from Inouye, easily hopping off at the top of the mountain.
“I was so nervous the first time,” Gretsch said. ”I had a death grip on the bar the whole ride up. I just didn’t know if I put my weight forward if the (the mono ski chair) would tip forward.“
Once at the top of the Silverthorne run, Gretsch was ready for her first experience going down a major slope on a single ski.
In no way did it look like it was her first mono-ski experience.
Gretsch didn’t fall on her first run even though skiers and riders took spills all around her as she made her way down the hill. On Gretsch’s second lap, she was already asking if she could get on the lift without assistance and gain some more speed going down the hill.
“I should have told Jeff (Inouye) that it is sometimes hard to slow Kendall (Gretsch) down,” U.S. Paratriathlon team head coach Derick Williamson said. “She doesn’t really have an off button.”
Gretsch, on her second run, was skiing at full speed. Gretsch made headway with using her outriggers to help her turn, and she didn’t encounter any problems until she reached the steeper section of the run for the first time that day.
Inouye told her what she needed to do in order to carve across the mountain and prevent a fall or loss of control.
Gretsch had a few bobbles the first time, but by the second time down the steep section of the run, Gretsch was carving down the slope with ease.
By the tail end of the day, Gretsch was maneuvering herself on the lift without help and going down the ski slope with minimal guidance from Inouye.
“She’s doing awesome job. I would like to think it is the instruction, but I know it is the athlete,” Inouye said with a laugh. “Bottom line is – it is different, but sliding on snow is still sliding on snow and being aware of body position, transitions and where you need to be – it all translates.
Gretsch said the experience was about as hard as she expected it to be. The hardest part, she said, was figuring out how to turn and carve since the process is different in cross-country skiing.
With her newfound skills in tow, Gretsch is hoping to feel confident enough to head to Vail in two weeks to go skiing with a few of her friends while they watch the annual Adaptive Spirit competition from April 7-10.
Gretsch has no plans to compete in the sport, yet. However, at the rate that Gretsch took up downhill skiing, it wouldn’t be a surprise if she started training for the next Paralympic games.