Teenagers everywhere make bad decisions. That’s what makes teenagers, teenagers. Most get away with it, some don't. When Anna Beninati was 17, she made one of those poor decisions with severe, life-altering consequences. While she was attending Colorado State University, in Fort Collins, she and some friends decided to jump on a freight train to Denver. Train-hopping was a popular, if risky, activity for students trying to find an adventurous and cheap ride to the city and back.
Beninati missed the jump, and the train ran over her legs. The accident sent her reeling. How would she ever continue? What would become of her life? Never again would she feel her feet sinking into the sand at a beach, or be able to run barefoot through green grass.
But she could still ski. Having spent high school in Salt Lake City skiing at Snowbird, she rose up from her despair to regain her life. Two months removed from her accident, she was in a sit-ski, learning how to maneuver down Chickadee with Snowbird's adaptive ski program. After only a few months, she was encouraged to join the Park City-based National Ability Center. The NAC, an adaptive program specializing in recreational, outdoor, and educational activities for people of all abilities, is one of 12 Gold U.S. Paralympic Sports Clubs in the United States.
Six years after losing her legs, Beninati, 24, is now a competitive slalom and GS skier with the NAC, and this winter had the goal of being named to the 2018 Paralympic Ski Team. With the 2018 Paralympics set to start in PyeongChang, South Korea, on March 10, dreams of Olympic glory are center stage for hundreds of athletes and their families.
Today, Beninati works as a ski instructor at Snowbird and lectures about the consequences of decisions to youth detention centers and prison inmates. On the day of U.S. Paralympic selections, February 20, she learned she didn't make the cut.
"I'm going to keep fighting and try to make it to Bejing (in 2022)," she said that afternoon. "I'm a fighter, whether in a hospital bed or going down a slalom course. The defeat I suffered today will only make the victory in the future all the sweeter."
As skiers, it's easy to complain about the little things: cold hands and toes, ill-fitting boots, or lugging a heavy ski bag through the airport. But what Beninati and so many other athletes prove is that our struggles pale in comparison to the challenges they must overcome on a daily basis.
With the Paralympics starting this week, it’s as good a time as any to reflect on their athletic achievements, but also to highlight their triumph of the human spirit in the face of immense adversity.
Here is what Beninati has to say:
When I got home from the hospital is when it really hit me. We have this association that when you get home from the hospital, you're better. But that wasn't the case. I got sent home because that was the best I was ever going to get. The first couple of weeks I was really wallowing. I was angry with myself with what I'd done. It was hard because I was in intensive outpatient treatment, and had to go in multiple times a month for wound care. It was a struggle hour by hour, minute to minute, just to get through the day.
One day my mom was thinking, 'By the time you're 38 years old, you'll be an amputee for as long as you had legs.' That switched my perspective: I started thinking long term.
I decided that I can either sit here and be angry and let myself become embittered, or take it as a second chance. I don't know why it was me who got a second chance--a teenager who lost her legs committing a crime. But I did get that second chance. So what am I going to do with it? I have the rest of my life to make up for it. I'm always going to be the train-wreck girl with no legs but how am I going to be the train-wreck girl with no legs?
Skiing was the thing that turned my recovery around. I went skiing for the first time two months after the loss of my legs. My mom was complaining about me always in the house, and so she told me you need to do something with your life because you're driving me nuts.
I thought I'd go skiing a couple times a year. But I did one run down Chickadee and thought, 'Where can I buy this equipment and make it part of my life?'
I'd lost sight of the beauty and power and uniqueness that was within me. When I got up there and skied for the first time, that beauty was back and power was back. The more I got my independence back, the less my disability mattered. I knew I could ski this run as beautiful and faster than most of the people out there. Skiing gave me something despite my disability.
To get out of the hospital room, I had a permanent IV in my arm and a device called a wound vac. I asked my doctor, 'Can I go skiing with all this medical equipment still attached to me at this point?’ He dug out the manual and said, 'There's nothing in here about skiing.' So we'd pack up all medical equipment into sit-ski and send me down the hill.
When I was outside and in the fresh air and in the sun, none of that even mattered anymore.
I attribute my resilience to growing up as a military brat. Change is going to happen and you have no choice.
There's no rookie league in adaptive ski racing. You're up there sharing the hill with guys who are world champions. If you want to race, that's where you have to start.
It was a hard wake-up call. This is your tribe and you're the low man on the totem pole. I wasn't particularly well-liked that first season. But since then I have come into my own.
I'm a tech skier. I weigh 85 pounds, and don't have legs sticking out in front of me. It's all in my abs, so it's easy for me to get around gates. Slalom and GS are my events, and I got a gold in the Super G in Canada. But I'm too light. With all of my ski equipment on, I'm pushing 110 pounds. So I'm not going to win any downhill races.
If you've had an accident similar to mine, I would say that remember your life isn't over. You have a right to wallow to a point. It's hard to know when the wallowing is going to end. But you're life isn't over. If you're like me, you'll find newfound passions you never thought you'd be good at. The resources are out there.
You can give up, or you can get up.
Today was a give-up day, but I was out there on the hill and skied two hours with my team this morning. To this day, six years later, I have to decide whether to give up or get up.
Making the team is something I've worked toward for six years now, but if there's one thing I am, I'm a fighter. This is just another obstacle.