Paralympic Retrospective: Never Say “Can’t” Until You’ve Tried

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Oates downhill skiing

Photographs courtesy of Oates.

In February 1980, Zehavah “Z” Oates (née Whitney) was one of two individuals with bilateral above-knee amputations invited by the International Sports Organization for the Disabled (ISOD) to give a ski demonstration in Geilo, Norway. The event was part of the Olympic Winter Games for the Disabled, now known as the Winter Paralympics. Oates says that ISOD wanted her and Allen Hayes to demonstrate their skiing abilities to prove that individuals with bilateral above-knee amputations could safely stand-up ski in race conditions. The success of Oates’ and Hayes’ four-track skiing (using two skis with handheld outriggers for balance) demonstration was part of the documentation submitted to request and gain approval of a standing class in para-alpine downhill skiing.

Oates, who was born with bilateral lower-limb amputations—one transfemoral, one knee disarticulation—began skiing in the winter of 1977–1978. “Many times I was told it was physically impossible for me to ski because [of] the lack of ability to maintain balance with bent knees…,” she said. She was not dissuaded; Oates’ motto is “Never say ‘can’t’ until you’ve tried.” Tired of sitting in the lodge watching her friends ski, and “envious of all the fun they were having,” she took ski lessons with Chicagoland Handicapped Skiers, Chicago, Illinois. Equipped with standard-suction sockets with a Silesian belt, Mauch knee units, and outriggers, Oates hit the slopes. After two months of lessons, she signed up for her first race.

program cover of 1980 Winter Paralympics

Oates’ first race experience came in February 1978 at the Midwest Regional Handicap Races held at Mount Brighton, Michigan. There she met Hayes, “who showed me that it was possible for me to stand-up ski and taught me how to get off the chairlift, which is very tricky for a bilateral with no control of the knees,” Oates recalled. She said she fell a lot that day.

That event led her to a race the following month in Winter Park, Colorado, where she took first in giant slalom and second in slalom. By October 1978, she had her sights set on becoming a downhill ski racer—saying she liked the speed and “the ability to do something that everybody else could do but often much better than the average person.” Oates contacted Hal O’Leary, the handicap program director of the Winter Park Recreational Association. This association led her to the proper instructors who taught her how to downhill race and to the 1980 ski demonstration that, in part, helped groom the trails for other individuals with bilateral transfemoral amputations to compete in stand-up skiing in the Winter Paralympics.

Oates’ alpine competition career lasted from March 1978 through March 1980, during which time she won several first and second place finishes. She also became a certified disabled ski instructor. She was an instructor with the Chicagoland Handicapped Skiers; for more than nine years she taught individuals with disabilities ranging from amputation to spina bifida to ski. She was also featured on Paul Harvey’s The Rest of The Story radio program.

“It all used to be about helping others learning to ski and that skiing was something you can do with your friends,” she said about her time spent racing, “and going out and having fun with everybody.” Instructing, she said, was the most rewarding aspect of her time spent on skis—seeing the smile on the faces of the children who could hardly walk but could move freely on skis.

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