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U.S Nordic Paralympian Joy Rondeau skis and shoots (below) during a 2016 race in Vermont. —Photos by John Lazenboy

No Pain, No Games

Joy Rondeau overcomes agony to score a spot on the U.S. Paralympic Nordic skiing team.

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The Paralympics are rife with tales of tragic events turned into heroic triumphs. After an IED blinded Navy Lieutenant Brad Snyder in Afghanistan, for example, he won two gold medals in swimming at the 2012 London Games. Joy Rondeau, on the other hand, was born with her disability, and her condition makes her unique: In June, the Granby sit-skier and biathlete became the first person diagnosed with familial spastic paraparesis (FSP) to make the U.S. Paralympic team in Nordic skiing.

To understand the significance of Rondeau’s feat, it’s important to realize that not every disability is equal. The top U.S. sit-skier, Oksana Masters, might not have her lower legs, but she can put the full force of her core, arms, and thighs behind her. Athletes with FSP, however, rarely participate in Nordic skiing. The neurological disorder shares symptoms with cerebral palsy (CP), including poor muscle coordination and balance—a dangerous combo when navigating slippery, snowy terrain on thin cross-country skis. (The main differences between FSP and CP: the former is less common, hereditary, and progressive.)

Rondeau played sports until her early 20s, when dull aches and throbbing nerves necessitated spinal surgery to stabilize her back. Doctors warned strenuous activity might tear her repaired vertebrae and predicted she would rely on prescription drugs to manage pain for the rest of her life. Terrified, Rondeau retreated to bed and tried not to move too much.

Six years later, Rondeau met Mark Birdseye at her church. Birdseye, a Nordic coach at the National Sports Center for the Disabled in Winter Park, figured that because Rondeau’s disability mainly affects her lower body, she should at least try Nordic. Rondeau didn’t bite: Why would she risk injury for a sport that didn’t appeal to her? Birdseye persisted. “You want to see people live a full life, and part of that, regardless of ability or disability, is being active,” Birdseye says. “Then you see if maybe they can race.”

The first year was difficult, but as Rondeau’s back muscles grew stronger, the pain slipped away and she stopped taking pain meds. It took three years of training six days a week, but Rondeau eventually impressed the national team coaches. “[Birdseye] told us he had this strong skier in Winter Park, and we thought, Yeah, yeah, yeah,” says John Farra, director of the Nordic national team. “But she’s so tough.” This month, Rondeau travels to Sweden for her first international training session with the U.S. squad. Then? The 2018 Paralympic Games in South Korea loom only 15 months away. Fortunately, the most painful part of the trek to get there appears to be behind her.


Rio de Janeiro Paralympians By State:

California: 33

Washington: 17

Michigan: 15

Colorado: 13

Florida: 13

New York: 13

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