Ethan Hess is dead-set on his goal of competing in the 2018 Paralympic Games in PyeongChang, South Korea.
But the 15-year-old has a little ways to go before competing on the world's most significant level, though he will be punching in the right direction over the next couple of months as he collects experience to help jump-start his career.
For starters, Hess is set to take part at the 2015 U.S. Paralympics Nordic Skiing Nationals at Solider Hollow in Midway, Utah from Jan. 2 to 7. Competing in the event will help Hess earn international certification.
For his next huge event, he will represent British Columbia at the Canada Winter Games in Prince George from Feb. 13 to March 1. His inclusion on the team was announced on Dec. 22.
"I was very excited (to be named to the team)," the Pemberton product said. "It's the next step to my goal of the 2018 Paralympics. I've got a great team of athletes that I'm with, and I enjoy hanging out with all of them."
Team BC head coach Tony Chin became aware of Hess two winters ago and began working with him last season. He said he, and the coaching staff at large, have been impressed with everything they've seen from Hess.
"We took him to the national training camp and he showed great promise," Chin said. "One thing with high-level athletes is they've got this determination. They've got this drive. And he's got that."
Chin said Hess should be well suited to the Prince George course, as the British Columbian athletes have already been able to check it out — and discovered that with Hess' strong upper-body, it will play to his strengths.
"He knows the course and he knows how hilly it is," Chin said. "There are some pretty steep, long climbs that he has to do on that particular course. One of the things we've been focusing a lot on is physical climbing."
Hess has spina bifida (a congenital condition where the spinal column does not close all the way), and as his legs weakened, was no longer able to ski — either Alpine or Nordic — standing up. Learning of a Para-Nordic camp at Whistler Olympic Park in 2012, Hess decided to participate and quickly embraced being able to ski once again — he fell in love with skiing when he was two years old.
Hess explained spina bifida doesn't tend to affect his training on a day-in, day-out basis, as he has been able to make the necessary adjustments. However, he is more susceptible to internal troubles like kidney infections that can sideline him for significant periods of time.
"They do come up, but not all the time," he said. "I wouldn't get anywhere if I kept on coming up with serious problems like that."
As he focuses on his long-distance approach, and his cardio in particular, Hess stressed he is striving to become a better skier every day with the attitude that each race and each training session nudges him that much closer to South Korea. Equipped with a confident attitude that "the training part is easy" — just a matter of going to the gym or heading out into the snow — Hess is ready to take on what the rest of the world can throw at him.
"I expect some harder competition than I've got in B.C., because there haven't been many other people to compete against," said Hess, who is undefeated at the B.C. Nordic level. "(There will be) some harder terrain, and I'll get a look at who I'm going to be competing against for places on the national team for the coming years."
He also competes in paddling and dragonboat events, and has built strength and a transferable approach that help him in shorter-distance ski races. Having excelled at the BC Games in paddling in addition to skiing, Hess is no stranger to making a charge in either sport.
"Knowing how to handle the pressure of races (helps)," he said.
He's also looking to earn a spot on the junior team for next summer's World Dragonboat Championships and perhaps eventually compete as an outrigger at the Paralympics.
Chin explained he's glad to see Hess isn't just a "one-sport pony," especially as his two major activities result in transferable skills between one another.
"He's got tremendous upper-body strength, which is really crucial," Chin said. "In this particular sport, the strength-to-weight ratio is one of the key factors that we look at.
"He's working on his core throughout the year between the two sports. His core and his upper-body strength are being worked on year-round."
Hess has the mental and physical drive, but said practical considerations will continue to be an issue. He receives plenty of support from his family, but has opted for fundraising options like yoga events and other off-the-beaten-path approaches to help supplement his income and offset costs.
"Between now and when he actually gets named to the national team and gets support from the national team, it's basically coming out of his own pocket," Chin said. "It begins with doing a lot of international races and right now, because with the level of competition in Canada, there are so few competitors.
"He has to go internationally to get to the level where he will be competitive for 2018."
And Chin fully expects to see the young Hess hitting the Paralympic course overseas in just under 40 months.
"I see him going to 2018, absolutely. It's three years away. He's 15 right now and he's got plenty of time to grow and develop still," he said. "I don't see any downside on this. He's got the focus, the motivation.
"I think the only thing that will prevent him from going there is if he decides he's tired of the sport."
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