Paralympic skier nears the summit

On Feb. 20, Katrina Schaber will find out if she’s made the U.S. alpine skiing team for next month’s 2018 Winter Paralympics in South Korea.

But even if the 20-year-old Carlsbad native doesn’t make the team this year, she’s already reached heights she never dreamed of as child.

Schaber was born with cerebral palsy and learning disorders, which made her early childhood years frustrating and lonely. In grade school, she was the kid who couldn’t tie her shoelaces, butter a piece of bread, play sports or even distinguish left from right. But after discovering her passion for ski racing in middle school, she has never looked back.

Today, Schaber ranks No. 4 in the U.S. among women’s adaptive standing alpine ski racers. And she’s in the top 20 worldwide of women adaptive ski racers registered with the International Paralympic Committee.

When she’s not racing, training or taking online general education classes at MiraCosta College, Schaber enjoys giving motivational speeches about overcoming obstacles.

“I like to tell people the story of how this girl, who really didn’t know what was wrong with her for the first eight years of her life, has had this unexpected journey,” she said. “It shows that no matter where you start, you can end up taking your life someplace amazing.”

“We are very pleased to see Katrina get some well-deserved recognition for her hard work as a competitive skier,” said David Carucci, executive director of United Cerebral Palsy of San Diego County. “She has been a good friend to UCP and … a great example to our clients and their families as to what living a ‘life without limits’ can look like. We wish Katrina well in her quest to represent our country during the upcoming Paralympic Games in South Korea.”

Schaber grew up in Carlsbad in an athletic family. Her parents, David and Carolina Schaber, are avid skiers and her younger sister Angelina, 16, is a competitive volleyball player and snowboarder.

Schaber was introduced to skiing at age 4, but she hated it, just as she did anything that required physical coordination. “I was super clumsy,” she said of her childhood, when she struggled in school and had trouble making friends.

“I was the kid who was never good at sports and academics,” she said. “Every day was a struggle on the school playground because I could not figure out how to jump rope, play hopscotch or participate in any recess sports.”

Carolina Schaber, a nurse, spent three years driving her daughter around to specialists to find an answer. One occupational therapist diagnosed Katrina with dyspraxia, a disorder that affects coordination. But Carolina was convinced there was something else wrong.

Finally 12 years ago, Carolina got a job at Rady Children’s Hospital working for cerebral palsy specialist Dr. Henry Chambers. When she told him that her 8-year-old daughter walked on her toes, he asked to see Katrina, and within five minutes of meeting her diagnosed a form of cerebral palsy known as spastic displegia. She was also later diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

Schaber said the diagnoses was devastating. She felt like her life was over. But things began to change for the better very quickly. She changed schools and made new friends, she started a physical therapy program that strengthened her muscles and coordination.

And then, at the age of 11, she flew alone to Colorado to attend a weeklong adaptive ski camp run by the National Sports Center for the Disabled. There she met other athletes with cerebral palsy and said she realized, “If they can ski, so can I.”

Before long, ski racing wasn’t just Schaber’s hobby, it was her all-consuming passion. It was something she could do with confidence, coordination and, best of all, speed.

“When I’m skiing, it’s an indescribable feeling,” she said. “I love the combination of that adrenaline rush and the feeling of gliding over the fresh snow first thing in the morning. In my book, there’s nothing that compares to it. It’s a completely free feeling.”

In 2011, she began racing annually in the North America Paralympic Alpine Skiing Race season. In the first two years as a junior racer, she won two gold and two bronze medals and at age 14, she was recruited by an adaptive coach.

In the years since, she’s achieved many milestones, particularly in her two best events, the giant slalom and Super G (a faster slalom with wider turns). In late 2013, she was chosen as a TD Ameritrade Next Generation Athlete, which landed her an appearance on the “Today” show and a free trip to see the 2014 Olympics.

In 2016, she finished in the top 10 for giant slalom in the IPC Adaptive Alpine Skiing World Cup in Aspen. In 2017, she won five silver and bronze medals in competition. And last year, she joined the 2017-2018 Paralympic National Team. It is from this group that the final competitors for next month’s games in South Korea will be chosen.

Since she graduated from Canyon Crest Academy in 2015, Schaber has been self-funding her quest for the Paralympics through speaking events, fundraisers and crowdfunding campaigns (gofundme.com/send-katrina-to-2018-paralympics). She trains at Winter Park, Colo., in the winters and spends the summers at Mammoth Lakes in Northern California.

This week, she’s competing at the Adaptive Spirit Alpine World Cup Finals in Kimberley, Canada, where she hopes to finish in the top eight.

After that, she’ll have a nail-biting wait until the Paralympics Committee chooses its alpine ski team for the games, which run March 8-18 in Pyeongchang.

Schaber said she’s right on the margin of making it. She’s one of just nine women adaptive alpine skiers in the U.S. qualified for the Paralympic games, but her current ranking in that group is 7. It’s quite possible that only the first six women will get to go to the games.

If she’s not picked, Schaber said she’ll finish out her season at the U.S. and Canadian Nationals March 26-30 in Mammoth Lakes and then look ahead to next season. In between, she enjoys visiting her family in Carlsbad.

Her goal is to continue training until she makes it into the Paralympics. Meanwhile, she plans to finish up her G.E. credits at MiraCosta and then transfer to a university where she’ll study to become a high school history teacher.

She also plans to continue telling her story at speaking events in the hope it reaches other young girls and boys who were as hopeless as she was when she was diagnosed with cerebral palsy at age 8.

“I believe that it’s very important to inspire others with my story,” she said. “The more people who hear it, the more I can inspire them to think outside the box of what they believe they can do.”

-- Pam Kragen is a reporter for The San Diego Union-Tribune.

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