When Kathy Oxner heads to Vernon next month as a para-nordic skiing coach at the B.C. Winter Games, the success of her team won’t be measured in wins and losses, or the medal count.
Instead, Oxner will count success by the smiles on the faces of the team’s five cross-country skiers, and ultimately, by the interest and awareness the squad is able to garner for the sport of para-nordic skiing.
And while some people are quick to mouth platitudes about affecting change and empowering people – especially those with disabilities – without ever seeing anything through to fruition, Oxner knows firsthand that such change can happen.
In fact, only has to look to her partner, Mary Benson, for proof.
Benson overcame a near-fatal brain injury, which affected her mentally and physically, to become a Paralympic nordic skier – a career that was highlighted by competing at the 2010 Paralympic Winter Games in Whistler.
But long before she starred on the world stage, Benson was terrified of the idea of returning to the sport she once loved prior to her injury.
“I was terrified, just terrified. I mean, I couldn’t walk all the way down the street, and you want me to ski?” Benson told the Peace Arch News in 2010.
Her fears were quickly overcome, and soon she became a regular on the para-nordic circuit, competing all across the globe.
Now retired from competition, Benson and Oxner – who served as Benson’s coach and guide – have helped spearhead a new para-nordic team with the local Nordic Racers Ski Club, and spend their time speaking to groups of young athletes, both disabled and able-bodied, in the hopes of inspiring a new generation.
Fellow Paralympic skiiers Courtney Knight and Lou Gibson – Benson’s teammates at the 2010 Games – are also onboard with the new program, dubbed Skiing is Believing.
“After the Olympics, we said to each other that we had to keep this momentum going… all the publicity, all the attention we received,” Oxner said.
“We’ve done that, and it’s very exciting to see it grow.”
The sport has grown in B.C. to the point where five competitors and four guides – from a number of different zones, or teams – will compete at the Winter Games in Vernon, which run Feb. 23-26.
“This is the first time we’ve ever been able to enter a team in the B.C. Games,” Oxner explained.
“We’d always been asked to, but never could until this year.”
Unlike other sports at the Games, which are under-18 events, para-nordic skiers range in age from 14 to 40.
“So many people who become involved in para-nordic skiing do it after becoming injured later in life, which is why the age (range) is different,” said Oxner, who has earned a number of different coaching certificates since watching Benson at the Paralympic Games.