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Paralympian Spencer Wood Has Upped His Game On Skis

by Peggy Shinn

Spencer Wood poses for a photo during Jan. 2019 in Winter Park, Colo. Photo courtesy of U.S. Paralympic Alpine Skiing.

 

KILLINGTON, Vt. — When Team USA caught up with Spencer Wood back in March 2018, he was about to compete in his first Paralympic Games.
Back then, he was 21 years old, a sophomore at the University of Colorado-Boulder, a guy with a big smile who was eager to prove himself on the world stage. But he had only begun competing as a Paralympic alpine skier three years earlier and the Paralympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018 did not go as he hoped.
He was undeterred by the experience. And since then, much has changed for Wood. He is now a college graduate, and his confidence has soared. With another season of World Para Alpine Skiing World Cups on his calendar, plus the Paralympic Winter Games Beijing 2022, Wood has become a podium contender.
So what led to his athletic transformation?

First, some background. Wood grew up in Pittsfield, Vermont. His parents were ski instructors at nearby Killington Resort and their two kids were on skis around the time they could walk. [A notable fact: Wood is a direct descendant of Benjamin Franklin. Like Franklin, Wood is left-handed, and the two share the same birthday — Jan. 17.]
Wood was soon racing through gates. But his parents had yet to tell their son that he was disabled. Wood had a left-brain stroke in utero, which left him with right-side hemiparesis (permanent weakness and muscle deficits on his right side). His parents wanted him to adapt to his physical impairment on his own without using it as an excuse. They finally told him when he was 10 and wanted to try out for the baseball team. His right-side weakness would be more evident on the baseball field.
But on skis, Wood felt like any other kid on the mountain.
“Skiing was something that came so naturally to me being a Vermonter and growing up in a ski town,” he said four years ago. “It seemed totally normal just to go out and rip with your friends and see who could be the fastest one down the hill.”
When he was a high school junior at the Killington Mountain School, Wood’s ski-racing coaches suggested that he try Para skiing. He was classified as LW4, the same classification for standing skiers with a below-the-knee amputation, and he finished fifth in his first Para alpine race. 
That was January 2015, and Wood has never looked back. While he was in college at Boulder, he trained at the National Sports Center for the Disabled in Winter Park, Colorado.

Spencer Wood competes in the men's standing giant slalom at the Paralympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018 on March, 14, 2018 in Pyeongchang-gun, South Korea.

 



But the PyeongChang Paralympic Games did not go as Wood hoped. Competing against legends like seven-time Paralympic medalist Aleksei Bugaev from Russia, Wood finished 25th in the giant slalom, and he did not finish the second run of slalom.


“After being 20 seconds out in PyeongChang, I was not feeling too hot,” he confessed.


The following November, Wood was reclassified as LW9-2 after a board of doctors took his right arm deficiencies into account. He competed in three Europa Cup races immediately after the reclassification and finished on the podium in the last one.


He was happy to finally see his hard work pay off. Two months later, Wood scored his first world cup podium — third in a slalom on his birthday. Even better, he was only 1.2 seconds behind American Thomas Walsh, a two-time bronze medalist at the 2019 World Para Alpine Skiing Championships. At the 2018 Paralympic Games, Walsh finished 16 seconds ahead of Wood in the GS (taking seventh in that race and fifth in slalom). 


Wood has yet to beat his friend Walsh in a race (the two men both attended ski racing academies in Vermont and are friends). But he has skied faster training runs than Walsh, particularly in super-G.


But don’t ask Wood to compare himself to his friend. Three-time Paralympic gold medalist Alana Nichols once advised Wood not to compare himself to other athletes.


“You’re only limiting how much you can improve,” Wood remembered Nichols telling him. “Compare yourself to yourself.” 


“It really helped me go inward and focus on what I wasn't doing right and how I can improve,” said Wood.


The major turning point for Wood came this past summer. He had just graduated from CU-Boulder with a degree in communications and was at summer training camps in Europe. 


“I was like, I can't be going to the next Games feeling like this,” he thought. “I can't have regrets in the start again.”


So he returned to the U.S. and moved into the Olympic & Paralympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, where he mountain biked, worked out, ate and slept. Every day, he found inspiration looking at the “ginormous” American flag that hangs in the training center. 

 

 

“It was a solid six weeks of pain cave,” he said. “I really needed it for my mental health, and it was fantastic.”
While working out at the OPTC, he also thought of one of his good friends who had passed away earlier in the summer from fentanyl. It made Wood realize that he could not take any day for granted.
“It upped my game when I was in the Springs and really helped me focus in on what my goals were, how hard I want to achieve those goals, how badly I need to achieve them because I just have had so many years of mediocrity,” said Wood. “And I just can't stand for that anymore.”
Wood also began working with a sports psychologist who had him think about doing something new every day.
“Like water droplets at the end of the month, end of the year, you've got a huge bucket full of water,” explained Wood. “It's called plus one. What's the plus one that you're working on that nobody else is? 
As he worked out at the OPTC, Wood kept asking himself, “Can I work a little harder on the mountain bike? Can I get the form a little more explosive in the gym? Can I eat more food? Sleep longer?”

At this season’s first NorAm races in Panorama, British Columbia — a slalom, giant slalom, and two super-Gs — Wood finished no lower than fifth and stood on the podium twice. He loves the speed events, and he was less than a half-second off Walsh in the two super-Gs.
Wood then traveled to Switzerland in December for the first Para world cup races but suffered a concussion in training. After recovering, then training again at home in Vermont over the Holidays, Wood headed to Europe again for more world cups in January 2022.
As for his medal hopes in Beijing, Wood would like to think he is a favorite to stand on the Paralympic podium in one of skiing’s four disciplines: slalom, GS, super-G and downhill. 
“My heart wants me to be there,” he admitted. 
But like most Olympians and Paralympians, Wood is process driven. 
“My goal,” he continued, “is to not really focus on the result but just focus on how much improvement I have made and be happy, be content that my finish is as good as I could have gotten and that I did everything I could to make my family and my nation proud.”


An award-winning freelance writer based in Vermont, Peggy Shinn has covered six Olympic Games. She has contributed to TeamUSA.org since its inception in 2008.
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