Tuesday, August 20, 2019
Gabriela Andersen-Schiess Still Has Grit
Gabby Andersen-Schiess skis down Nemesis at the sun Valley Nordic Center as Baldy looms in the background.
Friday, February 8, 2019


Gabriela Andersen-Schiess has boasted a “never-say-die” persona ever since the 1984 Summer Olympics when she provided one of the Olympics’ lingering images during the 26.2-mile Los Angeles marathon.

Andersen-Schiess, a long time Sun Valley resident, staggered into the stadium dehydrated and suffering from heat exhaustion on a day when temperatures hit 86 degrees and she had missed the last of five water stations.

Her torso was twisted, her left arm limp and she was dragging her right leg. But she waved away medical attention as she continued around the stadium track.

Gabby practices turning wth the help of a shortened ski pole.

Andersen-Schiess, who was representing her native Switzerland, finished only 24 minutes behind the winner Joan Benoit, even though she took five minutes and 44 seconds to run the final 400 meters,   stopping to hold her head periodically.

She finished 37th of 44. And her time was good enough that she would have won the gold medal in the first four Olympic marathons.

She didn’t let her struggle that day faze her—she competed two weeks later in an equestrian-running event at Park City. And she continued to compete on the world stage, with marathon wins in the inaugural California International Marathon and in Minneapolis, even as she set records for her home country in the 10,000 meters and the marathon.

Gabby, as her friends know her, has put that “never-say-die” attitude on display this winter for those fortunate enough to see her in action at the Sun Valley Nordic Center.

Whoops! She’s down. But not for long.

She had her knee completely rebuilt three months ago after two knee replacements.

“It’s a genetic thing,” she said, lest anyone would attribute it to years of pounding the pavement while running.

But the 73-year-old consummate athlete wasn’t willing to give up her Nordic skiing, which she has pursued as fastidiously as she once pursued running, even taking it to the World Cup level.

A couple weeks ago she found herself in one of the adjustable sit-skis built by Sun Valley adaptive instructor Marc Mast as he led Gabby and a group of veterans in a two-day Nordic ski camp at Sun Valley Nordic.

Gabby Andersen-Schiess leads a parade of veterans taking part in a camp led by Marc Mast’s Wood River Adaptive Program.

She addressed the veterans first, urging them to shake it off and get back up should they fall on the course—or in life.

“It’s such an honor to meet her,” said veteran Jill Wright. “Being a runner myself, I follow marathon runners and I certainly remember that scene in Olympic stadium. Here, she ‘s been through so much but she’s still enjoying life.”

After the pow wow, Andersen-Schiess settled into the sit ski, which Mast calls the Wraptor.

This is the sixth version of the ski that Mast has made. He began designing the sit-skis because he realized there was a need for a ski that can be adjusted to a skier’s appropriate disability.

Gabby talks strategy with one of the coaches.

The skis can be adjusted for height and weight. They have leg extensions for longer legs. Amputees can take off the foot plate if they wish, and those with spinal cord injuries can tip the seat for a better fit.

Mast, who has worked with the U.S. Paralympic team since 2002, already has a seventh in production with a grant to build 15.

Andersen-Schiess quickly learned what everyone else who has gotten in one of the sit-skis has learned—it’s harder than it looks.

Sweat formed on her forehead as she pushed herself down two tracks set by the snow groomer for classic skiers.

“I can double pole all over this place, no sweat. It’s harder on this because I’m not on my two legs,” she said. “I’ve got to use my core, my shoulders, more. Still, I’ll do this until I can get back on my two feet. It beats being inside at the gym when it’s sunny in Sun Valley.”

On the second morning the group decided to head out Boundary Loop, a scenic trail along Trail Creek that passes through woods with a gorgeous view of Hyndman Peak, the 12,009-foot peak towering above the Pioneer Mountains.

Andersen-Schiess easily led the parade as the others shuffled along the tracks on classic skis.

But getting there involved going up one hill. Then down the other side.

At the top Mast showed Gabby how to jump the skis out of the tracks, thinking she might be more comfortable running her skis down the middle of the hill, rather than in the tracks.

She went about 20 feet and tipped over.

But, she followed the advice she’d given the others earlier. With the help of others, she righted herself and tried again. This time she made it. No sweat.

Andersen-Schiess didn’t grow up cross-country skiing in her native Switzerland.

“I didn’t grow up in the mountains but there was lots of land to run,” she said.

She learned cross-country skiing while living in Flagstaff, Ariz.

“Then my husband Dick and I moved to Sun Valley to work for the Holdings,” she recalled. “You can’t not cross-country ski here—it’s so perfect here for that.

Those who followed Andersen-Schiess down the trail soon found themselves falling in love with the sport of cross country skiing.

“It seems to be something you can make as difficult or as easy as you want,” said veteran Eric Lougheed.

“It’s a sport you can do for life. It’s a lifelong sport,” replied Kelly O’dell, recreational therapist for the Department of Veterans Affairs in Boise.

Another hill loomed. But Gabby didn’t complain.

“She’s just an inspiration to all the veterans,” said Mast. “She has physical issues right now but still she feels good about what she’s doing.”


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