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No Barriers Podcast Episode 129: Concurring Limitations with Sarah Will



Erik and guest host, Tom Lillig, speak with Sarah Will. Will is the one of the most decorated athletes in U.S. Paralympic Alpine Skiing Team history with 13 Paralympic medals in 10 years of competitive skiing.

In this episode get up close and personal as this Olympian shares her triumphs, challenges (physical & mental), blunders here and there, and where her life is headed now. Growing up in Vermont, Sarah Will was a natural on the slopes. She competed on the nationally-ranked ski team at Green Mountain College.

Her skiing career took an unexpected turn in 1988, when a skiing accident left her paralyzed from the waist down. She did not give up. 4 years later she went to the 1992 Paralympic Winter Games winning gold medals in the downhill and super-G. 10 years after, and back to back appearances at every winter olympics she had racked up 12 golds and 1 silver. Will is one of the most decorated athletes in U.S. ski team history.

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Episode Transcript

Sarah Will:
So I think at one point, it was the third day, and I just kept on getting body slammed over and over. And I said, "If you pull that rope one more time, I'm going to wrap it around your neck." I snapped. I snapped in front of my father. I snapped in front of my friends. I snapped. And I just went back to the house with a headache and tears. I could hear my friends and family in the other room saying, "Maybe this was a bad idea."

Erik Weihenmayer:
It's easy to talk about the successes, but what doesn't get talked about enough is the struggle. My name is Erik Weihenmayer. I've gotten the chance to ascend Mount Everest, to climb the tallest mountain in every continent, to kayak the Grand Canyon, and I happen to be blind.

Erik Weihenmayer:
It's been a struggle to live what I call a no barriers life, to define it, to push the parameters of what it means. And part of the equation is diving into the learning process and trying to illuminate the universal elements that exist along the way. In that unexplored terrain, between those dark places we find ourselves in in a summit, exists a map. That map, that way forward, is what we call No Barriers.

Tom Lillig:
Welcome to the No Barriers Podcast. I'm Tom Lillig, board president of No Barriers. There are many powerful women in sport today. Naomi Osaka and Simone Biles have gained a lot of attention this year for not just being badass, heroic athletes, but for sharing with the world some of their struggles. Right up there on the podium with these stars is our guest today, Sarah Will.

Tom Lillig:
She's one of the most decorated athletes in US Paralympic Alpine skiing history, 12 gold medals, one silver across three Olympics. Let's go behind the scenes with her as she shares her triumphs, challenges, both physically and mentally, and the funny time the German ski team questioned her choice of equipment. I think you'll like this podcast. Take a listen.

Erik Weihenmayer:
All right. Cool. Well, everyone, welcome to the No Barriers Podcast. Hey Tom, thanks for co-hosting with me today again.

Tom Lillig:
Oh yeah.

Erik Weihenmayer:
We have my friend Sarah Will aboard. It's so great. We've been trying to get Sarah for years. She's quite a jet setter, so it's hard to pin her down. So Sarah, I know we've already introduced you in the bio, but one of the most decorated Olympic athletes in history. You competed on the ski team for 10 years. You were inducted into the US Olympic Hall of Fame. I mean, wow, this is cool. We are up in our game, Tom, aren't we?

Tom Lillig:
Oh, I know. Sarah is... I'm not worthy. I'm not worthy to be here. Sarah is a skiing badass, a No Barriers badass. I am not worthy to be here, but I'm so glad that we can have you Sarah for this conversation.

Erik Weihenmayer:
And after sI think retired her ski season, her real claim to fame began, which was the adventure team challenge that Sarah and I and a bunch of other folks competed at this adventure race, mostly near Steamboat, but all over Colorado. It was a two-day race. We had what? A team of five, Sarah?

Sarah Will:
Yep.

Erik Weihenmayer:
And every team had to have two people with disabilities. One a standup disabled athlete and another more of a para or a quad. And so we were a great team. I think we won almost every year for like eight years in a row, right?

Sarah Will:
Yes. You guys went so fast with me. It was just like hanging onto a chariot. I was just along for the ride. It was just incredible.

Erik Weihenmayer:
Well, we helped you up the hills, but down the hills, none of us could keep up with you. I remember running full blast, just hanging on to Skylar's pack, running full blast down a rocky trail. And you were bombing it in your mountain cycle, just bombing it so fast. There's no way any of us were keeping up with you. And then you were pretty light. I think you're only like 90 pounds. So everyone was like, "Ah, Sarah is so light. That's why you guys won." And it's like, "Well, wait a second here, spoiled losers."

Sarah Will:
I said, "Weigh me down, weigh me down. I don't care."

Erik Weihenmayer:
But those were such fun days, Sarah, to have you on the team. And man, it was fun to be younger and fit and crushing it back then. Huh?

Sarah Will:
So much fun. It was the experience of a lifetime because I love the woods and there's no way for me to get in there. I can walk in the woods. I can take a horse in the woods. I can ski in the woods, but not like a crazy adeventure race where you do downhill biking, you do cross country biking, zip lining, rafting, using all sorts of blow darts, whatever crazy antics you guys came up with.

Erik Weihenmayer:
Yeah. Whatever we could invent, right? And remember one time we competed against Mark Wellman in his team and they actually beat us, which is one of my greatest complaints in life. That Mark Wellman, he is amazing. That guy is another incredible hand cyclist.

Sarah Will:
Incredible.

Erik Weihenmayer:
Yeah. But anyway, so Sarah, I know you grew up in Vermont. My son, Arjun, just went to University of Vermont and to Burlington as a freshman. So I'm going to be spending a lot of time there. But you grew up there. I think you went to Green Ski Academy or something like that. I'm not kidding, you really are a thin woman. How the heck did you compete and skiing? Because don't you have to be giant and burly, like heavy and powerful so that gravity is bringing you down the mountain? Aren't you at a big disadvantage being so thin?

Sarah Will:
Yes, I am. I lived in New York and then we made the car ride to Pico peak in Vermont every year and it was solid ice. So when you were going downhill, it was loud and your skis were barely holding together. And so I really learned of having four brothers and a sister, how to keep up. As a little kid, I was just really fast. I learned how to bomb. So my advantage was that I knew how to go fast on the more difficult parts.

Sarah Will:
But when I got on the flat areas of the race course, I could feel the air sucking me up because I just had no weight to carry me down on a hill. So I always thought I have to do the best that I can on the most difficult part of the course. And the other thing was we went to the General Motors wind tunnel, where they put the cars in there. Everything was all secretive and other cars were in there that were all covered up.

Sarah Will:
We weren't allowed to say anything. And we went into this room where they have the white stream of air that goes over you. I think they only let us go up to 55 miles up, maybe 50 miles an hour, because they were afraid that we were going to blow out of the air tunnel. But they attached our skis to the base and each teammate had three positions that they could test. So for every adaptive skier, for another person it was outriggers up or outrigger one, outrigger. So we all had three positions so that we could all work it out amongst ourselves which position was fastest.

Erik Weihenmayer:
Amazing. So it's like real high tech science behind it.

Sarah Will:
It was such a high tech. Because Chevy was a US ski team sponsor at the time. So we kind of begged them, "Hey, can we get in that wind tunnel?" And they set it up for us. I mean, no people had been wind tested in that tunnel. It was only cars at the time. So they got us in there and it was so much fun. And my test was my legs were so tiny and so skinny that in my downhill suit, the wind would come through my legs and hit my chest and it was making me slower. And besides, my legs were so cold all the time. I was cold. I needed pants. I can't just be running out there in my underwear basically.

Sarah Will:
So I just said, "I can't train out here trying to get pants off in a downhill in a mono ski. So I'm wearing pants." And the coach was saying, "Sweetie, we spend so much money on these downhill suits. This is ridiculous." And I said, "Well, my test in the tunnel is going to be pants on or pants off." Because all of the other positions were already pretty much covered, outriggers up, outriggers down, one leg, faring, no faring. Everything was covered. And mine was pants on, pants off.

Erik Weihenmayer:
It sounds like the karate kid.

Sarah Will:
It totally is.

Erik Weihenmayer:
Pants off, pants off.

Sarah Will:
I was totally to say. So when the test came back, it turned out that I was the least wind resistance because of my size and pants on were faster than pants off. So he said, "You proved it, you can keep your pants on."

Erik Weihenmayer:
That's amazing. So in a way it had an advantage to be thinner?

Sarah Will:
Yes, but I didn't know that. I didn't know that until that test. And then I just thought to myself, "I'm going to get my outriggers up." I took all of the advantages from everybody else, but I also knew from other races that if you were bombing at the finish line and you had both outriggers up instead of one outrigger up and one outrigger on the ground and one that would still get that wind to go over your head. That was the idea, to make it aerodynamic.

Sarah Will:
If you had them both up, you could take a bobble. You could just get off balance for a millisecond. I saw the race between Jim Martinson and David Kylie won by a hundredth of a second simply for reason. It was because he put both outriggers up and had one millisecond of a bobble because of it. So I always made sure that one outrigger was up and one was down on the ground.

Erik Weihenmayer:
Wow. Now you were a good standup skier, obviously, before your accident, right?

Sarah Will:
I was okay.

Erik Weihenmayer:
But you clearly loved it and came out here to Colorado and skied a lot.

Sarah Will:
Right. I started when I was four and then did a race program. I was in a race program when I was a teenager and then raced in college for a year. And we were a division three school. I went to Green Mountain College, which was not Green Mountain Academy. Green Mountain Academy is a ski academy.

Erik Weihenmayer:
That's what I thought.

Sarah Will:
Green Mountain College was like a liberal arts school. It was just so much fun. I'm very dyslexic and ADD and I was just happy to get into a college that would accept me. And they accepted me. And in their guide that they would send out to people was a pullout poster of the mountain I grew up on, which was Pico mountain. And I just thought, "That's a good place to go to school."

Erik Weihenmayer:
Absolutely. And then is that when you had your accident?

Sarah Will:
So after school, my brother, Jeffrey, lived in Vermont. He had been a lift operator for a long time. Now he was the head of lift operations for the mountain. So after school, I became a lift operator for a couple, I think, two seasons and slept in his basement on his couch. We would go to work together. He was my boss.

Erik Weihenmayer:
Good Steve dirtbag material. Excellent.

Sarah Will:
I was such a dirtbag. I loved being a dirt bag. It was lift operating when lifts didn't slow down. There were three people at the bottom because your right arm would just be worn out and you'd have to rotate. And there was no heat.

Erik Weihenmayer:
I was scared of those ones that don't slow down. In fact, I went to Russia one time and they had a single tier lift. Yes. So I just had to line up with my blind butt pointed in the perfect position and I'd never get it right. And the bar would hit me in the hip and knock me left. And I had a backpack on. I'd be barely hanging on the lift as it's like flying up into the air and I'm like struggling to get on. It was one of the more terrifying things I've ever done. I'm glad they changed.

Sarah Will:
I tried to be gentle with somebody like you, but if somebody was really annoying me, I held that thing up as high as I could and let that thing go. Have a nice...

Erik Weihenmayer:
Those Palma lifts are terrifying too for the blind, by the way. Talk to the people, Sarah. Help us out.

Sarah Will:
So that's what I'm doing now, is because I've been a lift operator, I've been in every kind of dangerous lift situation that you could think of. I'm not skiing anymore because of it. And I'm going to produce an adaptive lift operator safety video so that everybody's on the same page.

Erik Weihenmayer:
Are you serious or are you kidding?

Sarah Will:
No, I'm serious.

Erik Weihenmayer:
That's really cool.

Tom Lillig:
That's awesome.

Sarah Will:
Because I noticed over the last two years, even before COVID, just because of budget cuts or whatever the reason, they stopped using the adaptive program to train their people. And they just ended up with a vague 8 by 10 piece of paper saying, "Ask them what they need." And with some basic things, but that's not enough.

Erik Weihenmayer:
Good for you. I think that's smart. Again, I have no personal experience, but getting onto the lift with a monoski, you got this 50 pound monoski underneath you. You're paralyzed from the waist down. That looks terrifying too, to be honest. Talk me through, as a blind guy, how the heck do you do that? How do you get on the chair independently?

Sarah Will:
So there's a number of different ways. Somebody who's taller, like Bill Bones, when he turns around, he looks left as the chairs coming around, that's the outside of the chair, or the inside. He might grab the chair and push off with his outrigger at the same time. He'll grab the chair and push off and then pop himself on. But there's also a rope on the back of the mono ski.

Sarah Will:
So you go up to the line and say, "I need a pullback." So when you push up on your mono ski and get your butt just above that chair, he pulls back and he pulls you back onto the back. Now, picture this. That's a great idea. But if somebody says, "Give me a pullback," and then that person doesn't really know what they're doing, they haven't been taught how to either let them go or go for the button or whatever their safety options are, say, "Stay down."

Sarah Will:
Whatever it is you have to do, if you've never been told, then you'll end up making a move that maybe you won't let go of that rope trying to keep them safe as the chair turn gets higher. And then what happens is they don't want to let you go because that's just a natural reaction to try to save somebody. And so I've taken up a lift operator with me, because they lost their footing. Now they go over the back of the chair. That's a really weird balance point. And then the next thing you know, we're 10 feet off the ground before the guy in the lift, Shaq, has even noticed that his person is gone.

Erik Weihenmayer:
Have you taken some diggers on the chair? I bet you have, where you're just like you miss it.

Sarah Will:
I've hung off the chair from the mid station all the way to the top because the girl was completely asleep and she had been woken up earlier that day. I hung at a 45 degree angle hanging onto nothing but a prayer. And then I went around the top bull wheel because she didn't see it coming. I went around the bull wheel and the only thing that stopped me was I hit the stop switch with my outrigger.

Tom Lillig:
Oh my God.

Erik Weihenmayer:
Come on. That sounds like a superhero.

Sarah Will:
So I'm traumatized and I cannot believe that I've skied as long as I can. I'm in therapy for this. I have posttraumatic stress. So when this happened, this was a year before the Paralympic games. And then I had to go to Europe and ski race and I couldn't get out of the van. The coach came back because he was with me that day it happened. He says, jokingly, "In order to be a ski racer, you're going to have to get out of the van."

Erik Weihenmayer:
Wise words, right?

Sarah Will:
He's like, "You're going to have to ski." And I begged him no. I was in Austria. All I can see was this moving carpet that goes to a little foreign man and it vanishes up to the third tower into the clouds like heaven. And I just went, "No, I can't." He forced me to do one run for that day and that was it. And then the rest I had to always be with somebody. I couldn't ride alone.

Erik Weihenmayer:
I think you bring up a really good point. So you talk about PTSD, and the things you've done, I mean, how fast did you ski? Like really fast, right? What was the max?

Sarah Will:
So the time I was clocked, it was 63.

Erik Weihenmayer:
So 63 miles per hour. And then you're riding the lift, you're hanging 45 degrees off. You're barely pressing the stop button with your outrigger. And I kayaked at a really high level for a while. And even though I know I can crush it, sometimes my mind gets in the way. I have a little bit I guess I would call PTSD. I think about the role and I think about if I flip over and I'm not going to be able to get up. You know what I mean?

Erik Weihenmayer:
I do think I was left. Even though I succeeded in the sport, I have a little bit of PTSD. Sometimes I'll have like a little anxiety dream of kayaking down a river and I'm like smacking into the walls and stuff. So do you honestly have a little bit of PTSD from excelling at this sport and just pushing it to an unbelievable level?

Sarah Will:
Well, I watched your movie, The Weight of Water, and I could see that kind of anxiety. I mean, why wouldn't you kayaking blind down?

Erik Weihenmayer:
Yeah. But you're skiing at like 63 miles per hour with this 50 pound thing under. I mean, it's a similar thing. I mean, it must be scary and it must give you some anxiety.

Sarah Will:
I have anxiety. Even when I was a kid going back and forth to Vermont, I was one of those car sick children. So the anxiety of just getting the car to go skiing was just like, "Oh God, where's Champlain? They're going to have to hose me off on the canal there." That was kind of Sarah's stop. So I was always car sick. So you would think, "Oh, the travel's great." Once I got there, it was great. But to get there on a plane, a train, an automobile, I was sick on everything. And that's why I slept so much is because I had to close my eyes everywhere we went.

Erik Weihenmayer:
That's so fascinating. You're going down the mountain at these outrageous speeds and the things that are giving you most anxiety are seemingly the lift and the transportation [inaudible 00:21:38]. I love it. I mean, this is like we're getting to the underbelly of the beast here.

Sarah Will:
This is crazy.

Erik Weihenmayer:
Things no one knows about Sarah. We should talk about your accident and then what happened from there. Were you at Aspen Highlands when you had your accident?

Sarah Will:
I was. I had just moved out to Colorado. I was there for three months before I had my accident. And when I got there, I was working as a carpenter. I used to work for my brother. I took wood shop in high school. I really liked that. It was just really nice to be in contracting. So I went to Aspen and just looked for the biggest nicest house that I could find in September, October that had indoor plumbing and a million doorways.

Sarah Will:
And you could just be putting in door knobs for months. So my accident was my 10th day skiing there at Aspen Highlands. I had down that trail a bunch of times, but that day it had snowed. And by that time, those bumps were all choppy and hard underneath. And I knew that. So I was just trying to get to another lift. But sometimes, you know how the bumps get cut sideways across a hill instead of down a hill?

Sarah Will:
And I just hooked my ski the wrong way and got off balance in a way that I couldn't fall right and I couldn't fall left. And then they just started taking off like you see people do kind of when they panic and they lean back. But my skis ended up going straight down that hill and pointed towards a cat track, the work roads that go across the hill. It just kind of compressed me into the ground and then sent me off into a back flip, a full back flip so that my skis hit the mountain first.

Sarah Will:
And then my head, the back of my neck had just kind of piled into the ground and my skis somehow didn't come off and ended up in a perfect X, just like you see the ski patrol put them. But my head was down the hill and my skis were up the hill and I was on my back. And I knew immediately something was wrong. And because my parents were both EMTs and they drilled this into our head daily, "Are you all right? Are you all right?" At the breakfast table. Not to panic.

Sarah Will:
And if you think it's your back or your neck, don't move an inch. Don't move a second because it could be the difference between you walking and not walking or being alive and not being alive. So I never did the full body check. I was like, "Let's just wait till the patrol gets here. Let them do the system check." But when you're sitting there for so long, you really can't tell if your... Your feet kind of get numb anyway.

Tom Lillig:
And you're probably hoping, "God, I just hope my feet are cold."

Sarah Will:
Right. Then they came and scooped me up in a sled and they brought me down. I was really cold because all the snow was packed around my body because that's how they scoop you up. And nobody was asking me if I was okay. It's like my mom, "Are you all right? Are you all right?" And I could feel myself kind of doing the hypothermia, killer of the unprepared, going into the black hole.

Sarah Will:
And I just wanted to go to sleep. There's no white light. It's just kind of black for me. And I had said to myself, "I want to stay. I want to stay." And then I just started singing because it was near Christmas, "Jingle hell, jingle hell, jingle all the way." Out loud.

Erik Weihenmayer:
Your own version. I like it.

Sarah Will:
I was singing my own version just to keep me awake because of what my mother had told me. And then it got to the patrol room and I asked if my ski boots were still on. And I've had them on since I've been four years old. And you know when your ski boots are on and immediately I just went, "Oh no." And then from that point they put a small wheel with pins on it so they could roll it up your leg to find out where your sensation was.

Sarah Will:
And at first it was my ankle and then 20 minutes later it was just below my knee. And then a little bit longer it was up higher at my thigh. And at that point I said, "Well, give me whatever you're going to give me, because I don't know how high this is going to go and I'd rather be loopy." And at that point I looked up and the doctor, it looked like his head was on the ceiling and it looked like all the nurses were like super short down below.

Sarah Will:
I couldn't figure out what that was all about. I thought they had given me the painkillers medication. But then years later when I was inducted into the Colorado Snow and Sports Ski Hall of Fame, there was a elderly gentleman on a walker, super, super tall. And he came up to me and he said, "I was the doctor in the emergency room when they brought you in." And I looked at him and I said, "Holy cow, how tall are you?" He was so tall and at the time all the nurses were below five feet or barely five feet

Erik Weihenmayer:
So he was a giant. You weren't imagining it.

Sarah Will:
No, I thought I was in Allison Wonderland or something.

Erik Weihenmayer:
And when you first got on a sit ski or a monoski, well, I imagine the monoskis back in 1989 weren't like the same as they are today, but that must have been really scary. And I know at first they don't just send you down the mountain on a monoski. You're tethered to someone. So tell us about that process. I mean, again, we talked about PTSD. That must have been terrifying. Bold decision to get back on the mountain less than a year later. I mean, that's not "normal Sarah."

Sarah Will:
When somebody says, "How long will it take before I'm cleared to ski?" And the doctor said a year and we went, "Okay, a year and we're back. We'll try it in a year. But my ego was heck of a lot bigger than my ability. We get out to Winter Park. Actually, I was still in the hospital when my brother had a ski trip scheduled to winter park, an annual trip that he took every year with his buddies.

Sarah Will:
And he said to me, "Should I take this trip? Are you going to feel bad if I go on this trip?" It was a logical question for what our family was going through. And I said, "No, you go ahead." I said, "I still love skiing. You go do your thing and don't worry about me." I don't even know how to feel about that at that point. So he back from there after seeing all of these adaptive skiers, and he brought home a book by Hal O'Leary called Bold Tracks. It was a bunch of pictures and illustrations and the different types of adaptive equipment.

Erik Weihenmayer:
Hal O'Leary founded the National Sports Center for the Disabled. I think he's an amputee himself or what? No, I can't quite remember, but he's a big pioneer in adaptive skiing, right?

Sarah Will:
He's a pioneer.

Erik Weihenmayer:
Oh, he was. He's passed away now, I believe.

Sarah Will:
Yes. A real pioneer and a wonderful gentleman. He's done so much for the sport and done so much for me personally. I owe my skiing career to his book.

Erik Weihenmayer:
So that book inspired you.

Sarah Will:
It did. And then we went out to Winter Park and they had over a thousand volunteers. So some volunteers are going to work for you in a personality and some are not. And I'm sure you go through that as a skier with guides.

Erik Weihenmayer:
Yeah. A hundred percent. Yeah. It's all about the relationship.

Sarah Will:
It's all about the relationship. And although these folks were super, super nice, and they were great. They tethered me. But as a skier, I could tell that some of the things that they were doing were really going to not be to my benefit and might slam me down a couple times more than necessary. For instance, if you're going...

Erik Weihenmayer:
Because whenever you have volunteers, their abilities are going to be inconsistent, right?

Sarah Will:
Yes. And even though they're trying their best, they might not really know how to be the best tether that they can be. Maybe they have limited training. I don't know. But they were doing their best. But as a skier, I could recognize that they were pulling that tether in the wrong direction, which was going to be like a snowboarder door hinge slam.

Sarah Will:
If I'm going across the hill and they pull that, bam. But if I'm in a straighter position and they're behind me and they pull that, great. So I would be able to just watch my ponytail, slow me down, pull me back, start over without slamming to the ground, readjusting and getting back up and going, "What am I doing?" So at that point, I think...

Erik Weihenmayer:
But that's really good innovation. No tether, just they grab your ponytail. That's amazing. I never heard that story.

Sarah Will:
No.

Erik Weihenmayer:
Okay, okay, okay. Got it.

Sarah Will:
So I think at one point, it was the third day and I just kept on getting body slammed over and over. And I said, "If you pull that rope one more time, I'm going to wrap it around your neck." I snapped. I snapped in front of my father. I snapped in front of my friends. I snapped. And I just went back to the house with a headache and tears.

Sarah Will:
I could hear my friends and family in the other room saying, "Maybe this was a bad idea. Maybe she's not ready." Maybe this or that. And then the next day I quietly went to the director and said, "If you could just get me, please, two young, good-looking guys who can ski, I would appreciate that." And I ended up with Bones and this other guy. They were amazing. They were great. The other people were great.

Erik Weihenmayer:
They provided extra motivation because they're handsome.

Sarah Will:
Oh, they were so handsome. And they were skiers. They had duct tapes somewhere on their pants. And that I knew was a good sign. And we had a great day. So anytime they gave me the room that I needed to figure out the speed a little bit without panicking. And then I would wave my head back and forth like no, and they could see the ponytail and that meant they could just slow me down and then continue, slow me down and then continue.

Sarah Will:
I started to get to hang of it and I started to feel that the ski was a ski. It wasn't like a disabled thing on a ski. Because I was ski racer, I could tell the edge set. I could tell I needed to be a flat ski here and edge ski there, where forward was going to release the tail, back was not going to be good for me.

Erik Weihenmayer:
So it sounds like a huge advantage that you were a skier beforehand.

Sarah Will:
Huge.

Erik Weihenmayer:
And so you got the concept of how the edging and all that stuff works.

Sarah Will:
Ski is a ski is a ski.

Erik Weihenmayer:
Right. Except you only have one. So that must have changed the dynamic a bit, right?

Sarah Will:
On every turn, that will always be your downhill ski.

Erik Weihenmayer:
Got it. I see. Yeah. And then you have these outriggers, these poles and they have little skis, if I remember feeling them correctly, that are on the sides for extra balance, like a Palm outrigger.

Sarah Will:
They're like Canadian crutches with skis on the bottom. And you can flip them up or flip them down. Flipping them up enables you to push along in the ski line or maybe after your race start and then you pull the string and they pop down. Or if you're a beginner, they pop up so that when you stop, you can use your little... You're stable. But when you race, you want to pop down when you pull the string.

Erik Weihenmayer:
So this second day, when you go out there, you kind of find yourself again on the mountain. What was that feeling like? What did it feel like to actually be out there? You had that bad first day, but then you had the second day and you're kind of finding yourself again in the thing that you love. Can you just describe for me what was going on in your mind?

Sarah Will:
I felt like I was back to my comfort zone in a ski world. Because the ski culture, it's very welcoming. It's the only ski that has @prey in their name. I mean, that's very friendly.

Erik Weihenmayer:
Which means drinking afterwards.

Sarah Will:
Yeah. Or during. Who knows?

Erik Weihenmayer:
Okay. Don't try that at home, kids.

Sarah Will:
Don't try that at home. No drinking and riding people. When you start to look around and you see everybody else is struggling with skiing, who is just on two skis, and then you realize I could get good at this very quickly. But the thing that changed everything was I was in the ski line and the world championships for disabled championships were going on at Winter Park at that time. So we had all the best people in the world skiing down that hill as fast as they could, wrecking, getting back up independently, going to the racer line in the ski line, cutting me off.

Sarah Will:
And all I could see was a mono skier wearing Australia's jacket and a US amputee skier wearing US on their jacket, riding the lift together independently with no help. And the chairlift just took off. And I knew right then, oh, this is a whole different thing. I really started paying attention. And then the girls introduced themselves to me, Shannon Bloedel and Candace Cable, Cathy Gentile-Patti, who was an amputee ski at the time, they were very welcoming to a rookie who obviously is eyeing them up and down.

Sarah Will:
And then I knew where you could go. It was like, "Oh, they're a part of the..." And the jacket that they wore was the exact same jacket as the United States ski team. It was no different. They were part of the US ski team. It was the US disabled ski team, but they wore the same jacket.

Erik Weihenmayer:
Yeah. And a lot of those ladies turned out to be kind of your competition, right? Wasn't there a lady named Buffy and you guys were like, at least in the media, you always presented sort of like Batman and the Joker competition, this arch rival.

Sarah Will:
The rivalry between Muffy and...

Erik Weihenmayer:
Muffy. Thank you.

Sarah Will:
Muffy Davis. She was like one of my greatest competitor and Kelly Fox. These women were just incredible. We were in different classes of... The adaptive world of sports with the classifications and the handy capping system is just beyond. You can't even get into that. But the reality is I had more physical ability than Muffy did. I was paralyzed from the waist down, where she was paralyzed from the chest down.

Sarah Will:
And she was a lot heavier than I was. So we had all these advantages and disadvantages against each other. She had the weight, but I was small. She took it down the hill because she was a ski racer too previously. And she used to race with Picabo Street. So I knew she knew how to ski. We just had to figure out our own game. And it was a lot of fun, fun and not fun competing against Muffy and the other women. But then you had to be their roommate, too, which wasn't a lot of fun either. If I won, I was still sulking because...

Erik Weihenmayer:
You have a room with her.

Sarah Will:
We'd beaten each other throughout the season. We had a room together and that's a little uncomfortable at times.

Erik Weihenmayer:
Did you ever have crashes like on sit ski? That's probably with this big monoski beneath you. Is that pretty scary crashing at a high speed on monoski? I mean, maybe that's an obvious question.

Sarah Will:
It sure is. It's like a mini NASCAR race car that you're strapped into and the whole thing just goes with you with no protective gear whatsoever, besides a helmet. That's it. So my father was terrified. He was like, "Please. There are four events. You can race the slalom and the giant slalom. Please. You're killing me doing this downhill." He hated me doing downhill.

Erik Weihenmayer:
Because that's the fastest, downhill, right?

Sarah Will:
Downhill's the fastest.

Erik Weihenmayer:
That's just bombing down the mountain pretty much.

Sarah Will:
It's just bombing down the mountain, following the way of the mountain and putting some gates up. But in slalom it's just a lot of turning gates and mono skiers don't generally like that at all. Not much. But I was very, very careful. We had a coach named Mike Brown and he lives here in Veil. And that's why I moved to Veil, because he was on the men's Olympic downhill team. He was top level. He became the coach for the US disabled ski team.

Sarah Will:
And he just thought, "Well, these guys don't really know how to ski," because some people are coming who have never skied growing up and some people know how to ski. So he taught everybody about how to go faster and feel slower by giving more room on the course and the line so that you're not coming into a place and then shutting it down sideways and the forces are building up and then your ski hooks on something. And next thing you know, you're in a cartwheel at 60 miles an hour. So you listened to Mike Brown. Listening to him was the difference of being alive and not being alive in cases.

Erik Weihenmayer:
And also with the learning process, right? I mean, I don't think people understand how delicate the learning process is. It doesn't matter how bold you are. If you're somersaulting five times a day down the mountain and you're sit ski, you are going to have PTSD and you're not going to want to lay it out there anymore. So it's not just about being bold and just laying it out there. You got to know what you're doing, right?

Sarah Will:
It's exactly that. He really taught me to take... He'd ask me, "What's your plan?" And I'd give him a plan. He goes, "That's not plan at all. What's your plan A? What's your plan B? What's your plan C when you hit this little puff of snow and you..." For our races, we didn't have a lot of money. So there were a lot of races that we didn't have half of the protective gear that anybody else would have in their race.

Sarah Will:
For instance, netting on the side. You might have one set of netting and then behind it another one and another one. It's called A netting, B netting, C netting. We barely had any netting. So if you went off the course, you could just be careening into the woods. It wasn't a matter of, oh, let's win this race. If you miss, you're going into the woods. What are you going to do?

Erik Weihenmayer:
I was just a novice racer. I went off a cliff on a ski race one time and I literally tumbled 15 feet down the mountain, smacked my arm so hard I had a hematoma. And this is nothing compared to what you were doing. I remember laying on the side and I was doing what you did as a kid, you would go... I was like, I still remember it. It was really super scary.

Sarah Will:
It was always so scary, but he made me think about things like, okay, if you're bouncing out control, which direction? Or in the finish line. We used to see this happen all the time with the blind athletes. They didn't plan which direction they were going to shut it down. Are you going to shut it down to the right or are you going to shut it down to the left? What does the finish area look like? Is there duffs of snow?

Sarah Will:
So without that, they'd get to the finish line. Our first race that my father had to watch, it snowed so much. We just watched athlete after athlete in the finish line hook this snow and just cartwheel... My father couldn't believe it. He had been to races growing up and he's watching all these disabled people just wreck it in this finish area. And he's like, "Please, don't."

Erik Weihenmayer:
A disabled train wreck.

Sarah Will:
The disabled train wreck. And at one point we were testing that finish area. I wasn't with the team yet. That was US championships and they were watching me and I was like adopted by the Alaskan ski team. And they were amazing.

Erik Weihenmayer:
Had to do on that one where there was so much snow on the ground.

Sarah Will:
Yes.

Erik Weihenmayer:
You did well?

Sarah Will:
Yeah, I won. I think I won the downhill, but I think I got like a silver bronze in the Super G because when I was in college, we didn't have Super G. I thought Super G, like downhill is one run. Super G is one run. GS is two runs. Slalom is two runs. But I never raced Super G in college. So I thought it was two runs.

Erik Weihenmayer:
Can you just tell the difference between those four, like a sentence each, just so everyone gets it?

Sarah Will:
Okay. The four events... They're actually five now. The four are downhill, which is the fastest of the four. Basically follows the terrain of the mountain and is pretty just wide open with some control turning gates. Super G again is one run. Well, few more, but is considered a speed event. And then Giant Slam is two runs.

Sarah Will:
They set two different courses, in the morning and the afternoon. It's a combined run. It's a more controlled back and forth, right turn, left turn event. And then Slalom is lots of little gates. There's lots of different combinations, in and out, or through, across, and the gates are flying by you. It's not a speed event. It's a technical event.

Erik Weihenmayer:
Yeah. What were you best at? Because you said you didn't do Super G, so maybe that was your worst or what?

Sarah Will:
Downhill was my best and Slalom was my worst.

Erik Weihenmayer:
I see.

Tom Lillig:
All right, Sarah, we got to get things super real now. I'm listening to all of this. You talked about the PTSD at the beginning. You've had that since you were a child, all this going on with getting on the lift, the car, you have this accident, and then you know sort of the danger of having an accident again. What is that force inside of you that says, "This is what I need to do. I have to keep doing this?" Tell me about, what is that drive?

Sarah Will:
The drive in the beginning, I don't even know what it is now that made me do that. I think also that my mother was super patriotic. 4th of July was her holiday. The house in Vermont was all red, white, and blue, including the plates, the cups, everything. Everything was red, white, and blue. The moment I put my arms through that US ski team jacket gave me so much pride that I earned it and I made it and I had to do my very, very best because I had the ability to do so.

Sarah Will:
And when I started, I was very conscious to know that, no, I didn't. I had hardly gone a downhill race. I had only been in one downhill race, and that was for the US nationals. I was kind of foreign to it, but I was very careful to take three steps back and one step forward. Whereas a lot of other people were taking one step back and not being comfortable with their speeds and pushing it when they didn't really have to push it, where I was thinking so far ahead, not race by race, but the end goal was the Paralympics and to really be comfortable with every aspect of my sport.

Tom Lillig:
Have you always been a super competitive person or was it the drive that just kind of took over once you put on that jacket? Tell me about sort of where the drive to compete and win came from?

Sarah Will:
I think it came from the fact that as a child, I was highly dyslexic and ADD. The report cards just read we can't keep her from looking out the window and twirling her hair. I was so artistic and creative and I could figure out a problem a lot better than anybody else by thinking outside of the box, which is a big trait for people with dyslexia.

Sarah Will:
My biggest disability is not what you see as a paraplegic. It's me being anxious as a child about not being able to keep up. In fourth grade, I went to the special room and I thought it was the gifted room, because the color charts and ace everything, beep, beep, with the hearing charts. I knew that the square block did not fit in the round hole. That came all easy to me. But I couldn't spell or read or write. I was horrified that anybody would find that out.

Sarah Will:
And as a kid, it wasn't a big deal. But when you got farther along and you couldn't read five pages and you couldn't do your homework, everything was just impossible. I was just the whole time covering up that with my natural ability in sports. So I had a horse when I was 11. I got my first pony when I was 11, fully responsible for that. And even though my parents had money, we had to pay for everything ourselves, the stalls and 100% responsible for their feeding, or if they got out, you had to go find them.

Sarah Will:
If they got sick, you had to take it to school. So very responsible little child that enjoyed time by myself because my time with my horse and myself and my sister and the barn, nobody was going to pick on me. I was always the second smallest in any school I went to. So with the older brothers, I was tough, but I didn't like being tough. I didn't want to be that. That's just the victim of the circumstance.

Sarah Will:
I've really, really struggled over the last... Even when I was in the ski team, I sought out mental health and all these things are kind of coming into fruition. All of these struggles as a child are rearing its ugly head into adulthood.

Tom Lillig:
Yeah. Is it safe to say that you've had this sort of chip on your shoulder for all of your life and it kind of drove you to perform and compete and get to that top level?

Sarah Will:
Yes. And even equestrian riding. I was always one of the top riders with the tiniest pony when everybody was showing up to the big shishi A-rated shows, which is the top thing with their little black ponies. And my pony would come out of a Volkswagen bus. We'd put her in a Volkswagen bus and people would look over at six o'clock in the morning and see some pony's head looking over at them and get the stop lights.

Sarah Will:
So again, if we didn't have the money for the trailer and my pony was small enough, we were going to put her in a Volkswagen bus. The kids were just appalled at the big show that this little pony totally cleaned up with this ratty little kid. And get in our little bus and go home with all the prizes. It was fun.

Eric Weihenmayer:
What do you think, Sarah, about everyone talking about mental health issues now in the Olympics, like Simone and the other athletes and so forth? So all that's coming to a head, this struggle with mental health. My friend, Jeff Ulrich, and I can't remember her name, Theresa, I think.

Sarah Will:
Theresa Panther.

Eric Weihenmayer:
Yeah. She passed away. But Jeff said it was hard being on the road. Because you're friends with these people, but you're competing with them and it's real harsh. I mean, not harsh like people are trying to be mean, but it's really competitive and you got to work your butt off. You're training all the time and you're bused to the next ski resort and the next competition, and it's never ending and you're exhausted. The mental health issue must be huge, and we're only starting to talk about it now.

Sarah Will:
It's a huge issue, Eric. The organization like safe sport is so needed because if you're an athlete and you're doing everything in your power to try to be a part of whatever organization you're trying to be on. And then you're also putting yourself in harm's way along the way. And nobody asks questions like, "No. Ask the kid who doesn't have any money where they're staying on their way out to Mount Hood. Are you sleeping in your car? Are you going to get a hotel? Are you splitting costs? Are you trying traveling alone?"

Sarah Will:
I wasn't asked any of those questions and I didn't have any money. I was on the A team, but at times I was raising funds with the popcorn wagon here who had a little note that said, "This tip money is for Sarah Will," and then I'd get a little red and white bag full of cash. And they're like, "What's up with all the cash? What are you doing on the side?" But the thing is I ended up sleeping at a camping ground at Mount Hood because I got a brand new Chevy truck and I thought it would be fun.

Sarah Will:
And rather than stay at the hotel with all the inaccessibility bunk rooms, it's like playing jenga when you get a bunk bunk room full of two wheelchairs and two amputees. And when they don't have their legs on, getting by each other is like jenga. I really implore people to always think about their health and safety first rather than their sport or the gold medals or anything.

Eric Weihenmayer:
Yeah, that's most important.

Sarah Will:
It really is most important.

Eric Weihenmayer:
As an individual, as a human being, right?

Sarah Will:
As a human being and to teach yourself to not let any buddy steamroll you off of a cliff.

Tom Lillig:
Yeah. Did you ever have an instance where you were not well, but for whatever reason, you went ahead and competed, thus putting yourself in serious danger.

Sarah Will:
Too many times, I can't even keep count.

Tom Lillig:
Oh my goodness.

Eric Weihenmayer:
Where you're sick and you're tired, you're exhausted, and you're still out there doing it. You have to, right? I guess. No. I guess you don't have to.

Sarah Will:
You don't have to. For instance, the whole drug testing thing, there are so many things on the ban substance list that are simple cold medicines. And if there's only one that's approved by the Olympic committee and that one becomes addictive after three uses, and then you can't get off of it or it's going to be very difficult, it's going to take you three months to get off of it, the conditions will still be there, and that's the only thing available to you, and it doesn't work after three times and it makes the condition worse. So I had a cold and all I could do was talk like this. And I was talking to Harry Smith of the NBC channel tried to do by interview and I couldn't breathe. And it causes sleep deprivation.

Sarah Will:
I mean, if you still got a cold at Mount Hood in June, you carried it through the whole season because there was no way to get rid of it. You were so scared to take antibiotics. You were so afraid to take anything. So rather than take anything, you just took nothing. And if you didn't get the right advice, you're putting your health in danger. The first thing that I did when I crossed that finish line and I got drug tested, was I got in my car. I didn't go to the party. I went down to the drug store and I filled up everything I could to open up my nasal passages and breathe.

Eric Weihenmayer:
You took a long nap.

Sarah Will:
Yeah. So no, I don't have tolerance for people who...

Tom Lillig:
I mean, given the perspective you have now, what advice would you give to a younger Sarah that was in one of those instances where you pushed yourself into a danger zone where you may not have been mentally healthy, but you went ahead. What advice would you give yourself?

Sarah Will:
To make sure that you're being heard by your teammates. A lot of teams have an athlete advisor. It's really good to have an athlete advisor. Sometimes you have a male and a female advisor on your team. They might be the teammate. I think I was a advisor for a little bit. They're not going to always tell you what's wrong for one reason or another.

Sarah Will:
If you feel that you cannot report an incident to your own team because they will be protecting your own team, then go directly to SafeSport and get as much information on the incident as humanly possible, get witnesses, get names, get times, get dates, get locations. Because it's just so easy for somebody to say it didn't happen and you need to protect yourself and your teammates.

Sarah Will:
All the gold that I've won is all gold dust in the wind if I don't stand up for myself or my teammates. And it's really hard to compete at that level and still have to watch out. Because I think I was the oldest woman on the team. So I didn't take offense to my name being grandma because I did whatever I had to do.

Sarah Will:
When you talk about the stress and pressure, that caused me so much anxiety that I'm still dealing with it today. I'm still trying to figure out why I was so... I wasn't just going along for the party like everything is fun. No, I was usually off in a corner by myself somewhere looking rather unhappy because I was. And whether you're on the top of the podium or not taking all those pictures, I'm sad. I'm so sad to have to say that. But I want to put it out there for people so that they know that their gold medals are not worth their life and their mental health.

Eric Weihenmayer:
Do you think it's possible, though, to be a gold medalist and have 12 medals, to have competed for 10 years, to be a world champion and be perfectly well balanced? I mean, because you have to be so driven and you eat, sleep and breathe skiing. How are you like this? How would you ever be like a Zen yoga master and be a champion at the same time? Do the two go together or is it impossible? Do you have to be a little bit off to choose that life?

Sarah Will:
I feel more than a little bit off.

Tom Lillig:
That could be the name of your podcast: Sarah Will, A Little Bit Off. I love that.

Sarah Will:
Yeah. It's either that or it's going to be random will.

Tom Lillig:
There you go.

Eric Weihenmayer:
Do you think life is hard off the mountain. I mean, because you skied hard. You said in a way it became your comfort zone, but life in a wheelchair, life as a blind person, whatever, it's not that easy. Do you feel sometimes like life off the mountain is hard too? I know a lot of your work has moved in that direction of helping people gain more access to things and more accessibility, more inclusiveness.

Sarah Will:
Yes. I mean, just because I have a disability does not mean I know about ADA law or accessibility or any of that. I'm just reminded of Charlie from Sunny in Philadelphia. "I know a lot about the law and other various lawyerings." I don't. But I'm trying to familiarize myself more with the ADA and its rules and regulations because that's my life in a wheelchair. I run into it every day and at some point I just want to be able to issue somebody a ticket if I have that power.

Eric Weihenmayer:
Oh, that'd be amazing to be able to give people tickets.

Sarah Will:
Yeah. I just found out online there's a way to do it and I'm going to do it.

Tom Lillig:
Well, besides planning to give other people tickets and helping spread this message that's really important of elevating people to care about their mental health and care about their themselves, despite the opportunity for gold. One question I had is what drives you now? You said you've retired from all your Paralympic competitions. What is it that's driving you now? Is there that thing that's out there that you wake up in the morning and say, "Yes, this is what I'm here for now?"

Sarah Will:
Again, my parents taught me so many good lessons on how to stand up for yourself and how to stand up for others and really be conscious of what's going on. And if you turn a blind eye, you're just as guilty. That's a lot to live up to, but it's kind of my thing now after putting up with so many injustice throughout my ski career and different situations that I've been in as a person with a disability and people try to take advantage of your accessible parking spot and keep moving it out into the parking lot.

Sarah Will:
The only way to do something is to bring it up and report it to the Department of Justice. The more information I get, the easier it is, the more fun it becomes. I'd like to get more into my ADA consulting. And as I go through my recent case that got a little crazy, I did it voluntarily. I haven't done it for 10 years just because of my anxiety issues. So I'm working on that. And through dealing with the anxiety issues, it really comes down to the anxiety I'm having is because I'm putting myself in situations where people are walking over me.

Sarah Will:
And when you start to realize that you keep on putting yourself, notice I didn't say they put me in there. I put myself in that position. And you start to learn where you are between a bullet and a target in a metaphorical way. But to learn through therapy instead of getting so angry and not being able to sleep and getting high anxiety over it, how to disengage emotionally, how to disengage physically, how to get all the information you need if you want to stand up to that, or not worth my fight today, not worth my fight ever. So making those decisions, having those things in your brain really protects you from things coming at you so quickly, just getting some guidelines on how to react.

Eric Weihenmayer:
Yeah. Sarah, you're so honest and authentic and I love it. I could talk to you all day. I have just one question that I want to wrap up with, which is at No Barriers, we teach people how to kind of engineer their future. Sometimes it's technology, sometimes it's just building systems and strategies and tools around you. You did a lot of adaptation of monoskis, right?

Sarah Will:
I wouldn't say that.

Eric Weihenmayer:
Or a little bit maybe. I saw you on an interview where they were talking about your sort of pioneering mindset around evolving some of the monoskis.

Sarah Will:
Yes. We worked with a lot of designers and some designers were, he was a dentist. He was a father of a child with a disability. He didn't know a whole lot about skiing, but he just tried things in his garage and he came up with something.

Eric Weihenmayer:
And then you'd go test it and go, "That worked. That didn't work."

Sarah Will:
Yes, which is funny. We spent the summer time testing different mono skis. So I might have three or four different ones that I was trying, which was really funny because all racers from the US ski team were there too. So Picabo Street was a friend of mine and she would actually look at me from the chair lift going, "Hey, I don't..." We didn't talk a lot, but she goes, "I just noticed that you are not skiing the same way that you usually do. That thing does not look right." And I'm like, "No, it's not right." So just having that from a really good skier and when we're on the same page and going, "Nope." She's like, "Get rid of that thing." Okay. Boom. And then I'd be on to the next one. So we were all test pilots.

Eric Weihenmayer:
Cool. Did you find one eventually that you settled on and you go, "This is it. This feels right?"

Sarah Will:
Yes. well, unfortunately, that one was after the games.

Eric Weihenmayer:
Great timing.

Sarah Will:
But that one was made by like Kevin Bramble, KBGGoodZ. And that was the one that I went in the X games with. We competed in a mono cross, which is same course as skier cross or border cross with maybe one or two jumps cut out, but you're still jumping a road. You're still doing a 80 foot launcher. That mono ski was so heavy because it was built to withstand these jumps. And honestly, that thing is in the back of my truck now. It's going off to another adaptive program because it's so heavy that I couldn't even pick it up or turn it. And I got a new KBG that was like super popcorn light and it was fast. So as I got older and retired, I needed something just to get around the mountain on. And that's what I have now. So you just adapt for your ability. You don't know if you're going to have...

Sarah Will:
I have the same mono ski that I had in '92, '94, and '98, which was an original Shadow. Because I had tested all of those other ones coming up and I said probably two months before the game, "I've got to go back again to the original." And at the start, the Germans who were all good friends of mine were joking and they said, "Sarah Will, I cannot understand how you're still skiing in this piece of shit."

Eric Weihenmayer:
And then you beat them.

Sarah Will:
But I did cry on it before I got there. So it was really super red paint and I put some stickers on it. And then when I got to the bottom and won on it, they said, "Well, it appears that this piece of shit is still working for you.

Eric Weihenmayer:
I love it.

Tom Lillig:
I love it. So good. Well, so great talking with you, Sarah. Thank you so much for not just sharing your story with us, but for sharing your important message. I certainly took away that you are just one of many powerful women in sport. Naomi Osaka, Simone Biles, Sarah Will, champions in their sport, champions for mental health. It's really been a gift to learn and hear from you. So thank you for bringing your heart to this conversation.

Sarah Will:
Thank you so much much for having me. This is a big turning point in my life and the mental health issue is of the utmost importance. I don't know what to say. I'm just so honored to be part of your podcast and your life, Eric.

Eric Weihenmayer:
And me, the same. I'm on your rope team too. Anytime. We need to find more excuses to spend time together.

Sarah Will:
Oh, actually, I'm cross-country skiing now.

Eric Weihenmayer:
I'll come up and ski with you anytime.

Sarah Will:
Yeah. The golf course is safe.

Eric Weihenmayer:
Yeah. I'll come up and ski with you anytime. I love it.

Sarah Will:
I would love for you to come up.

Eric Weihenmayer:
Okay. Perfect. All right. Well, thank you, Sarah. Thank you, Tom. Everyone, No Barriers. Thank you.



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