Kohut reflects on 25th anniversary of historic gold 

Whistler sit-skier led Canadian charge in Lillehammer

click to enlarge PHOTO COURTESY OF STACY KOHUT - GOLDEN ANNIVERSARY Whistler sit-skier Stacy Kohut won super-G gold at the 1994 Paralympic Winter Games in Lillehammer, Norway.
  • Photo courtesy of Stacy Kohut
  • GOLDEN ANNIVERSARY Whistler sit-skier Stacy Kohut won super-G gold at the 1994 Paralympic Winter Games in Lillehammer, Norway.

Stacy Kohut's journey to Paralympic gold began, of all places, in a University of Calgary parking lot in 1993.

The sit-skier had failed to make the Canadian national team that spring after a harrowing crash during tryouts in Kimberley, but when he was attending classes that November after recovering from a broken femur, punctured lung and three broken ribs, felt he was at a crossroads.

"I'm either going to go into that building. I'm going to go to school and be the school guy," he recalled. "Or I'm going to do exactly what I want to do with my life and that's (to) become a racer.

"I put the van in reverse, I backed out of the stall, I drove to (Calgary Olympic Park) and I think I rode 30 of the next days straight."

Kohut's father was a racer and grew up idolizing the Crazy Canucks, so he had his family's blessing to pursue his Paralympic dreams.

Kohut became a paraplegic after a freak accident in 1992 and had been sit-skiing for only about a year when he impressed the Canadian brass at a January training camp and was named to the national Paralympic team, becoming the first sit-skier to represent the country, which was no small feat.

"The team back then had quite high standards because the money was so tight and resources were so limited," he said.

Kohut described himself as a good skier before the accident, but it was his abilities in other sports that he was able to lean on when making the transition.

"What helped me the most was that I used to race motorcycles and race BMX, and the sit-ski is so much like a small motorcycle with the shock," he said. "It's a lot like riding a bike."

Once he had made the team and was prepping for the Paralympics, Kohut recalled some distrust from the national Paralympic brass because of his BMX and skateboarding background. He said that officials reminded him that he would be representing the country and to act accordingly. Causing additional friction was Kohut's refusal to wear a speed suit, as he favoured a black jacket that he said fit him better.

"If my suit was too big and I couldn't turn the way I was used to turning, then what good was wearing the speed suit?" Kohut reasoned.

In Norway, Kohut initially had some confidence as he had been training regularly at Nakiska, and the Lillehammer slopes had a similar feel. However, his first Games got off to a less-than-stellar start as he crashed in the downhill, slid on the ice and skidded into the netting at roughly 100 kilometres per hour, ripping holes in his beloved jacket. With the super-G on tap the next day, March 20, Kohut had to recover quickly in order to fulfill his dream of winning gold. Seeing a groomed hill helped him recover some confidence heading in.

"I was like, 'OK, if the track looks good, I'm going to go for it and I'm going to try to win,'" he said. "Of course you try to win everything, but coming off that crash, you've got to regroup pretty quick."

Two years less a day removed from the accident that changed his life, Kohut shot down the hill on his 95 slalom skis, manoeuvring well in turns but experiencing a bumpy ride in the straights.

"I got on the course and I just charged as hard as I could," he said. "There were some sections I was going through so quick I just can't even sit here and tell you because that whole section just went by so quick.

"I came through one section down towards the bottom where I knew I was getting to the point where I was going as fast as I could go in a sit-ski," he added.

"It was a pretty ragged, on-the-edge run, and when I crossed the finish line, I was 0.02 (seconds) ahead of the person in second, giving me the gold."

It wasn't quite that quick, Kohut recalled, as there were still some other skiers left to drop. He, admittedly, wasn't used to being in the hot seat and waiting to confirm any victories, but when it eventually happened, he became the lone Canadian man to medal in an individual event at the Paralympics in 1994.

After the Games, Kohut appeared on Canada A.M. with Valerie Pringle and met Prime Minister Jean Chretien.

His victory came at a time of positive change for the Paralympics, as the Lillehammer Games were the first to be held in the same city as the Olympic Games, with Kohut and his competitors challenging the same course as the Olympic women.

He also credited his sit-ski for helping to draw interest in para-skiing, calling them "billboards" and bringing more media attention to the sport.

"How far we've come has got to be the main thing. (It's) how far we've come as far as a sport, and when I talk about sport, I'm talking about alpine skiing (racing) for the disabled," he said.

Upon returning from the Paralympics, Kohut fought to get Paralympians carded and therefore paid. He competed at the 1995 Canada Winter Games, won the downhill and super-G gold medals at the 1996 World Championships and competed in both the 1998 and 2002 Paralympics, winning three silver medals at the former.

After the 2002 Games, Kohut packed up and moved to Whistler that May to pursue his new passion, downhill biking, and has not skied since. Kohut said he would still be sit-skiing if a professional circuit existed.

Kohut has given away the bulk of his medals; he had given his 1994 gold to his grandmother, and it is now in his mother's possession.

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