Eight years ago, Laurie Stephens was more daunted by her upcoming appearance on the “Today Show” than the challenge of hurling down the world’s slickest and steepest mountains on a single ski.
Stephens, a monoskier from Wenham, was favored to sweep the alpine skiing events at the 2006 Winter Paralympic Games in Torino, Italy, a competition in which physically challenged athletes compete two weeks after the Olympics, using the same venues.
To help promote the games, she was asked to appear on NBC’s morning show.
“She just about fell apart from the pressure doing that kind of situation,” said Kevin Jardine, high performance director for US Paralympics alpine skiing and snowboarding.
Yet on the slopes, Stephens, born with the congenital disorder spina bifida, has taken on every turn and obstacle with grace and perseverance.
In Torino, she won the downhill and super-G events, and suffered the first international loss of her career in giant slalom.
So stunned by her runner-up finish in the GS, Stephens slipped into such a deep mental funk that she could only muster one medal, a silver in the downhill, four years later in Vancouver.
Now the 29-year-old Stephens appears to be back in the groove as she prepares to take on the mountains in Sochi, Russia, during the coming week for her third Paralympic Games.
Last week, she finished second in overall standings for female monoskiers at the International Paralympic Committee World Cup final in Tarvisio, Italy, by winning the super combined and finishing second in the speed and giant slalom.
She was the only American — male or female — to win gold at the 2013 IPC Alpine Skiing World Championships.
As the reigning downhill world champ, she will once again be in the spotlight in Sochi.
“I know there is a lot more pressure in the Paralympic games compared to most other races in the season,” said Stephens, a 2002 graduate of Hamilton-Wenham Regional High School.
“I try not to think that way. I think of it as a race. We race all the time. We try to keep that in mind.”
“In past years I’ve been more stressed and worried about it. I’m trying to focus more on the skiing.”
After her introduction to the sport a decade ago, she has been a consistent success. She quickly won gold in the super-G at the nationals and silver in the GS at the worlds. The following year she won the World Cup overall title in super-G, giant slalom, and slalom, collecting 10 wins in 16 World Cup races. In 2006, she was the US Paralympian of the Year.
But all that early success made it more difficult when she faced failure.
“I grew up able-body skiing, and you lose 99 percent of the time,” said Jardine, who noted that Stephens now works year-round with a sports psychologist.
“You get quite comfortable losing, and when you win it’s a memorable moment. For her it was the opposite. She was comfortable winning all the time, and when she started losing she couldn’t cope with it and couldn’t get out of the rut.”
Stephens showed her competitive side the moment her parents enrolled her in a Saturday sports clinic for disabled children at the Massachusetts Hospital School in Canton. After a skiing trip to Loon Mountain in New Hampshire, she was hooked.
At age 9, outfitted in leg braces, she stood in skis. Three years later, she was introduced to monoskiing, in which she sits on an apparatus with one ski and uses poles connected to two smaller skis.
She joined a race team started by Paralympic veteran and current teammate Chris Devlin-Young of Bethlehem, N.H. She loved the fact that her ability to ski helped her fit in at school.
“It was always cool to go to school and everyone was talking about their sports teams and things they did and to be like ‘Yeah I’m going to a ski race this weekend,’ and have something in common,” she said. “Skiing was just one of the sports I loved to do. I could go out and be on the first chair and be out all day till the last chair. I still have a lot of fun skiing and I love the sport.
“Skiing is one sport that is pretty cool because once you got to a certain level you could kind of keep up and ski and do pretty much what anyone else on the mountain could do. You could go on any ski or any trail; it didn’t matter that you were disabled.”
By her second year at the University of New Hampshire, Stephens made the US national team and was traveling the globe. A fulltime Aspen, Colo. resident now, she only travels back home once a year. Her family is unable to travel to Sochi, but NBC Sports will broadcast 50 hours of live Paralympics coverage.
“The coverage we are getting this year may not seem like a lot, but it’s a lot for us,” Stephens said. “It’s cool we are being recognized and everyone in the US can see it for a change.”