DULUTH, Minn. — On a crisp February night on a run they call Gandy Dancer, the steepest hill at Duluth’s Spirit Mountain ski area, Blake Eaton carves turns on snow that’s really more like ice.
You can hear the sharpened edges of his racing ski scrape with every turn. His lines are straight, his turns are sharp. There’s little speed lost as he rounds each gate on the giant slalom course.
And on any given night of Team Duluth ski practice, Blake is among the fastest skiers on the slope. Not bad for a guy born paralyzed from the waist down due to spina bifida, a congenital defect of the spine.
Eaton, 15, a sophomore at Denfeld High School, skis on a mono-ski — a contraption that is half high-tech seat platform and half racing ski and binding. The chair snaps in and out of the ski binding like most skiers would do in ski boots.
He turns with apparent ease, distributing his weight in a high-speed balancing act nothing short of breathtaking to watch.
“If I’m doing it right my uphill (ski pole) is not touching the snow. The turn is all done with the edge of the ski,’’ Eaton said, explaining what he does.
He rarely 'biffs,' but when he does fall he usually bounces back up by himself, using his poles — with tiny skis on the end instead of sharp points — to help him back up.
“I’ve gone head-over a couple times, face into the snow, but not very often,’’ he said of serious crashes.
If Eaton has any fear, he doesn’t show it. If he makes a mistake he will utter an audible complaint to himself and keep going, determined not to repeat it on later runs.
“I’m very competitive. I like to win… If I get something wrong in practice I’ll go back and keep doing it over until I get it right,’’ he said. “I’m not fearless. But, really, that (the prospect of falling and getting hurt) isn’t in my mind when I’m skiing. It’s trying to keep focused on each turn.”
Eaton says his best subjects in school are “probably math and science,” and that those skills may help him figure out the geometry and physics of skiing.
“I think it helps me understand what they (ski coaches) are trying to explain,’’ he said.
From bi-ski to mono-ski
Blake started skiing at age 4 on a bi-ski, a sort of box seat on two skis that will balance mostly by itself without tipping over. He would ski weeknights with the Courage Kenny Adaptive Skiing program, but also with his family.
“We all ski. We got him started because it was something we can do as a family. We still do,’’ said Troy Eaton, Blake’s father, chauffeur and biggest fan. Blake’s three brothers, all able-bodied, also ski.
By the time he was 8, folks in the Courage Kenny Adaptive Ski Program were telling Blake he needed to try mono-skiing. So he did.
“It’s a much more demanding way to ski,” said Eric Larson, program coordinator for the Courage Kenny Adaptive Sports Program in Duluth. “It’s very subtle movements, weight shifts ... while you have that outrigger (ski pole) very subtly turning the direction you want to go. If you dip a shoulder in a mono-ski, or even tilt your head just a little too far, you fall over. It happens that fast.”
But Blake rarely falls over, Larson noted, and the better the kid got at mono-skiing, the more people paid attention.
By age 12, Blake was participating in regional mono-ski camps where experts and novices come together with coaches each winter to share their sport, learn tactics and bond (including one last week at Spirit Mountain).
On dry land, Blake is confined to a wheelchair and all that entails. But on snow, Blake eventually got more and more independent on the mono-ski. He can transfer from his wheelchair to the mono-ski by himself, strap himself in, run the course, get on the chairlift by himself and get back in line for another training or a race run, often without any help.
Still, Troy is there for every practice, offering a watchful eye and a little push when needed — maybe a boost up onto the chairlift seat. On some of the more challenging chairlifts with no safety bars, Troy will attach a safety strap from Blake’s mono-ski harness to the lift, just in case.
“I’m still his dad,’’ Troy said with a laugh on one trip back up the hill.
In 2017 and again in 2018, Blake attended a national mono-ski camp, the Hartford Ski Spectacular. Hosted each December by Disabled Sports USA in Breckenridge, Colorado, it’s one of the nation’s largest winter sports festivals for people with disabilities.
“In our area Blake is the only mono-ski racer, so it’s good for him to see and ski with others at his level,’’ Troy noted.
It was at those regional and national instructional ski camps where people started telling Blake he had a future in mono-ski racing, even though he had never really raced competitively before.
“When a kid is 12 or 13 or 14 and coaches who have been involved in Paralympics are telling him he’s got that kind of potential, that’s pretty impressive,’’ Larson noted.
Joining Team Duluth
Heeding that advice, and heading into this winter, Blake wanted to ramp up his training regimen, to move from recreational skiing to competitive ski racing. But with no other mono-ski racers in the region, and no mono-ski-specific coaches, his options were limited. So the Eatons turned to Team Duluth, the region’s largest alpine ski development program for able-bodied youth skiers and snowboarders. They weren’t sure what to expect.
What they found were open arms. Blake participates in Team Duluth ski practice every Tuesday and Thursday night and many Saturday mornings when there isn’t a race. He’s also participated in a couple of Northland Junior Race Series races at which he was the only mono-skier. Team Duluth even put up the first handicapped parking sign in front of the team chalet at Spirit Mountain, just for the Eatons' van.
“They have been nothing short of welcoming to us … This relationship with Team Duluth has been great,” said Troy Eaton, while standing on skis halfway down Gandy Dancer and watching Blake ski.
At the bottom of each practice run every Team Duluth skier, including Blake, gets a quick assessment from a coach who has watched the run from below. A coach at the top of the run offers more advice. Race runs are captured on video and analyzed.
“You can see him getting better and better because of what they are able to add; from their suggestions,’’ Troy Eaton said of the Team Duluth coaches. “Yes, it’s different (kind of skiing) But many of the techniques, the tactics, the lines … They’re all the same.”
Lisa Gacek, the Twin Cities-based mono-ski racing coach for Courage Kenny (and the Mahtomedi, Minnesota varsity high school coach for able-bodied alpine skiers) agrees.
“The seat is Blake’s ski boot,’’ Gacek noted. “No matter how you ski you have to know how to turn the ski. He has to figure out lines. He has to figure out edging and tactics to get through the gates as quickly as possible.”
“It’s all about how well you can turn your ski,’’ she added. “No matter how you turn your ski.”
First big race coming up
In early April, Blake will take his newfound techniques to Winter Park, Colorado for the USA-Canadian Adaptive National Championship ski races. The event draws the best adaptive ski racers in North America.
“There will be athletes at this event who have been racing at this level for 15 or 20 years. It’s a sport you don't necessarily age out of at 25 or even 30. There will be skiers well into their 30s,’’ said Gacek, who will accompany Blake to Colorado. “I’m not sure how he will do in the face of that kind of competition. But I know that Blake definitely has the potential to be at the level at some point. He’s only 15 and he’s already an excellent skier.”
For that matter Blake also is a competitive sled hockey player, traveling to the Twin Cities weekly to participate in a sled league. He’s also played wheelchair softball and won the 100-meter wheelchair dash at last year's state high school track championship in St. Paul.
Despite all the praise he’s getting, however, Blake isn’t expecting any medals in Colorado.
“I have no idea how I’ll do. It’s my first time in a big race like that. But you never know until you try,’’ Blake said.
He isn’t bragging, and his expectations are down-to-earth, but his hopes are sky-high.
“I have a dream of being in the (Paralympics) some day and I’m going to try to make that happen,’’ he said. “Probably not 2022 in (Beijing) China, I’ll only be 17. But maybe in 2026 in Milan (Italy), I’ll have that much more experience. That’s something I think is reachable.”
Anyone who has watched him ski probably agrees.
“I’m proud of him where he is now,’’ Troy Eaton said of his son. “But he has his own dreams of being on the U.S. Paralympic Team. And I'm not sure anyone can stop him.”
About the Adaptive Ski Program
The Courage Kenny Rehabilitation Institute - Northland Adaptive Ski Program started in 1978 and has helped hundreds of people of various abilities to learn to ski. This winter there are 37 people in the program and more than 100 volunteers.
Downhill skiing and snowboarding lessons are available for beginners to advanced skiers. There is one-to-one instruction in adaptive skiing techniques that accommodate people with a variety of physical disabilities and visual impairments. Adaptive ski and snowboard lessons are available at Spirit Mountain, Giants Ridge and Lutsen ski areas. Registration is in October for on-slope classes on weeknights in January and February.
For information go to account.allinahealth.org/events/54953 or contact Eric Larson or Mark Hanna at 218-726-4834. Cost sharing and scholarships applications are available upon request.
Types of adaptive skiing
Mono-ski: Developed for people with spina bifida, multiple lower body amputations or spinal cord/vertebrae injuries, mono-skiing involves sitting in a specially designed bucket-chair atop a single, central ski. Mono-skiing requires extremely well-developed upper body strength and control, as steering is handled entirely by turning the upper body and using the arms with specially shortened ski poles.
Bi-ski: Similar to the mono-ski, bi-skiing involves a seat set atop two skis instead of one. Bi-skiing is for people who have intact lower legs but poor control of their extremities. This can include people with multiple sclerosis, muscular dystrophy, cerebral palsy, brain injuries or spinal cord injuries. Again, it demands significant upper body strength and control to maneuver the rig.
About Team Duluth
With roots dating back to 1965, Team Duluth is the premier alpine ski team in the Northland serving kids ages 5-18 with developmental and competitive training and race programs. They also offer snowboarding and freestyle skiing programs. Team Duluth, a non-profit based at Spirit Mountain, provides the training for most athletes in Northeastern Minnesota and Northwestern Wisconsin who go on to varsity high school and regional and national alpine ski race competitions. Go to teamduluth.org for more information.
About spina bifida
Spina bifida is a birth defect that occurs when the spine and spinal cord don't form properly. It's a type of neural tube defect. The neural tube is the structure in a developing embryo that eventually becomes the baby's brain, spinal cord and the tissues that enclose them. Spina bifida can happen anywhere along the spine if the neural tube does not close all the way. When the neural tube doesn’t close all the way, the backbone that protects the spinal cord doesn’t form and close as it should. This often results in damage to the spinal cord and nerves. Spina bifida might cause physical and intellectual disabilities that range from mild to severe. The severity depends on the size and location of the opening in the spine and how much the spinal cord and nerves are affected. Each year about 1,500 pregnancies are affected by spina bifida in the US. For more information go to spinabifidaassociation.org.