Nearly four years ago, Lauren Woolstencroft stood on the podium in Turin, Italy, and contemplated what she would do next. The not-unfamiliar weight of a gold medal seemed to make it an easy decision. She had just won the giant slalom. This victory was particularly sweet, as even before the final strains of the Canadian anthem had drifted over the chill alpine air, she was certain it would be her final Paralympic Winter Games appearance.
Her decision was as solid as her medal. She was done. Done. She had nothing left to prove. Her trophy case was filled with more than 50 medals, including five Paralympic medals and eight world championship titles. During much of her skiing career, Woolstencroft, BEng ’05, was also completing her electrical engineering studies. Her life, she admits, can be “a bit ridiculous. Just mentally, it’s very tiring. It’s not a complaint, because I love what I do. Though it’s still very much a job.”
On the podium in Turin, she was contemplating how her life might be different. Maybe, instead of riding her bike on Saturday, she might occasionally take in a matinee with her boyfriend. Maybe she would catch up on a project at work. Maybe she might go on a holiday — a holiday! — perhaps to Chile, where she would exit the airport and visit the wide beaches of Viña del Mar instead of the vertiginous slopes of the Valle Nevado Ski Resort.
But fate has a way of upending the best plans. With the 2010 Paralympics being hosted by Vancouver, her adopted home, she began to wonder if she might be able to pull off one more special race. The sponsorships and the attention her sport would receive would skyrocket. Then she landed a job with BC Hydro, a games sponsor with the ability to give her the time off to compete, and suddenly the games seemed possible. And it is not as if she ever really wanted to lie on a beach sipping margaritas — that’s not her style.
“The stars just kind of aligned,” she says.
There’s no arguing with the stars.
In late July, Vancouver is caught in an unusual and unrelenting heat wave. At noon, it’s 27 degrees in North Van. The servers bustling around the Cactus Club are pinning their hair off their neck and complaining about their black high-heel pumps.
When Woolstencroft arrives, she is wearing jeans and an Alpine Canada vest over her t-shirt. (What is it with athletes and their imperviousness to temperature?) She looks smaller in person than on the ski hill. At 5’7’’ and 127 pounds, she seems too delicate to go hurtling down hills at a breakneck speeds.
She is far from delicate, however. When you watch her ski, you would never know that she wears three prosthetics. She was born missing both legs below the knee and her left arm below the elbow. She uses only one pole, but the way she moves you’d swear she carried two. Jean-Sébastien Labrie, the head coach of Canada’s Para-Alpine Ski Team, notes that her technique is very close to the able-bodied. “She has very good balance, so she can produce the same kind of edging,” he says.
A couple of weeks after our conversation, she will be on a plane headed to Chile, not for a holiday (of course not) but to begin on-hill training. “After Chile, we go to Europe,” she says. “I’ve taken a leave of absence from work for eight months, until after the games. It’s busy.”
Woolstencroft is prone to understatement.
Her passion for skiing was fostered early by her athletic family. She grew up in Calgary and was skiing the slopes of Whitefish, Montana and Lake Louise by age four. At 14, she skied in her first competition. She joined the national team in 1998. Her first big competition, in 1999, “I was dead last,” she says. “But I accelerated really quickly.”
Another understatement. She won gold in the slalom and the super G, to go with a bronze in the giant slalom at the 2002 games. Then in 2006, she won gold in the giant slalom and silver in the super G. It’s an extraordinary achievement. The slalom is a technical event, with shorter, slower courses and sharper turns; the super G is a speed event. It is very unusual to find a skier that can do both consistently well.
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