When they realize they’re working too much and exercising too little, most people might join a gym or maybe hire a personal trainer. Dani Aravich decided to train for Tokyo 2020. In the 400-meter dash. An event she had never raced.
In the midst of pursuing that lofty goal, she caught the eye of a Nordic ski coach, who invited her to a Team USA developmental camp. A downhill skier since age 3, she had only tried cross country once in the 20 years since. Still, she decided to make a run for Beijing 2022 in that sport as well.
Then the coronavirus struck. And the Tokyo Games were postponed. And all of a sudden the year-and-a-half span Aravich expected to have to transition between the two major world sporting events was sliced to a mere six months.
Aravich has her concerns about making it work, but she’s staying the course. She’s no stranger to challenges. She has, after all, gotten this far with only one hand.
“What I once thought was such a negative thing, like, ‘Why me? Why me? Why me?’ Now it’s very much a positive thing,” said Aravich, a congenital amputee. “It’s like, look at all the opportunities I have.”
Finding her 'sparkle’
Aravich’s father sobbed the day his daughter was born. He and her mother had no idea she would be missing most of her left arm from the elbow down, and he was worried about the hardships it would bring her.
Little did he know many of the hardest ones would be of her own making.
Aravich attended the same small Catholic school in Boise, Idaho, for most of her education. She’d known most of the kids since first grade and didn’t get much teasing. She hit a rough spot as a teen, questioning why she had been born different. By high school, though, she began to embrace her impairment as part of her “sparkle.” She rarely felt out of place.
On the sports fields and courts, she made sure she didn’t look out of place, either.
In softball, she had to catch and throw with the same hand. So she would sit in front of the TV with her family at night and practice taking her mitt off, stuffing it under her shorter left arm, and putting it back on. Off and on. Off and on. By her sophomore year, she was the starting left fielder on her high school’s varsity team.
She put the same dedication into soccer and basketball. Every time she encountered a hitch to her success — how to square up to shoot a basket, for instance — she’d devise a creative workaround.
“I was competitive,” she said. “I wanted to play, but I also didn’t want people to look at me and feel bad for me. I didn’t want people to be like, ‘Ah, that’s nice. She’s on the varsity team, but she has one arm so she’s sitting on the bench.’”
Her junior year, Aravich joined the cross country team at the urging of the school athletic director, who also happened to be the coach. She said the thought of running for competition “was kind of absurd to me” since it had always served as part of another game or a form of punishment. By the second week of practice, though, she had risen to become the No. 2 runner on her team — and found her passion.
She started to draw interest from college coaches and eventually landed at Butler University, an NCAA Division I school in Indianapolis. She’s not sure the Bulldogs coach even knew about her missing arm before she stepped on campus.
Her arm didn’t become an issue, but she felt a disconnect with her coach and teammates. After her freshman season, Aravich left the team.
For four years, she didn’t run competitively. Then one day, while working in ticket sales for the Utah Jazz, she started researching the Paralympics.
‘It’s a beast’
The minute it took to run one lap around Utah State’s indoor track during her first meet in March 2019 felt like an eon.
“The 400, I learned that day, in my opinion, is the hardest — I would 100% rather run a marathon — like I would rather run any other distance than the 400,” Aravich said. “It is a beast. It is a complete animal. Yeah, it’s tough.”
With the Paralympics as her goal, though, Aravich didn’t have much choice. Athletes with impairments like hers can compete in just four track and field events at the Games: the 100 meters, the 200, the 400 and the long jump. Longer races, like the ones Aravich prefers, don’t put her at enough of a disadvantage compared to able-bodied athletes according to the International Paralympic Committee.
Aravich’s first 400 against only para-athletes, her third overall, a month later left her with some scars. With about 20 meters left, she was running second in a pack behind the woman who had won gold in the 100 and 200 at the Paralympics in Rio de Janeiro. Then …
“I tripped and fell on someone's shoelace,” Aravich said.
“And I was humiliated and I wanted to quit,” she added. “And just, I already felt like I was so distracted from my job and I wasn't giving my job my all because I was doing this training. And I just wanted to quit and be done with the para-sports world.”
Funny thing, though. Aravich knew almost no one else who was missing a limb before she started her training for the Paralympics. She felt like she wan’t one of “them.” Since she started, she began to immerse herself in that community. And it was members of that community, and her mom, who most encouraged her to get back on track.
Last December, nine months after her first 400, Aravich ran her personal best. It’s still about two seconds off the United States Paralympic Track and Field’s “A” standard that she’s chasing — her inclusion on the roster for Tokyo 2020 is based more on time than results — but she’s also still a work in progress.
Grace Englund, a middle-distance specialist who secured a share of the University of Utah’s 4x400 indoor record before graduating in 2018, can attest to that. She has been coaching Aravich for about a month and she has no doubt Aravich can close that gap.
“I definitely think she’s going to be able to achieve more than she thinks she can. Anything you throw at her she’ll just take it and go, and she’s alway asking for more she can do to improve,” Englund said. “So just with her attitude, because I think in track, at a certain level, I like to say it’s 70% mental and 30% skill just because you have to overcome those boundaries and push yourself to the limit. I definitely think she’s in a spot mentally where she is ready to be one of the best Paralympians.”
She’s not the only coach who has been won over by Aravich’s can-do attitude.
A nordic natural
When Tanja Kari looks at Aravich, she sees herself. That’s not just because Kari, too, was born without a forearm or hand, albeit on her right side.
Kari ranks among the most decorated Winter Paralympians in history. She won 12 Paralympic medals for Finland in Nordic skiing, 10 of which are gold, and was inducted into the Paralympic Hall of Fame in 2010. She sees that kind of potential in Aravich.
“It has never, ever slowed her down and she has learned to do everything,” Kari said of Aravich’s impairment. “I don't think there's probably a thing in this world she can't do.”
That includes making the 2020 U.S. Paralympic team in Nordic skiing.
Kari, who moved to Salt Lake City after finishing her racing career at the 2002 Winter Games, was asked last December to work with Aravich on her technique, which includes one-handed poling. Aravich had just returned from a developmental camp in Breckenridge, Colo., where she clicked into Nordic skis for just the second time in her 23 years. The following week, in early January, Aravich was penciled in to compete in the U.S. Paralympics Nordic Nationals at Soldier Hollow.
Though they were sparsely populated, she won both her races.
“The way she skis at this point, being so new to the sport, is the thing that surprises me. And it surprises me in a very positive way,” Kari said.
She added, “She is golden.”
Nordic skiing was an easy sell for Aravich in. It reflects many of the qualities — serenity, willpower, pain and endurance — that attracted her to long-distance running. Add to that the support she’s received from the Nordic community and her favorable odds of making the national team (by virtue of how few female stand-up para-skiers compete) and the decision to attempt to qualify for the 2022 Games in Beijing was simple.
Even with Tokyo as her primary focus, it could be done, she thought.
Then a pandemic shut down the world.
Feeling the squeeze
Aravich didn’t feel the pre-race jitters. She couldn’t draw on adrenalin to help her shave off a superfluous couple tenths of a second. Without a crowd in the stands, or anything on the line, it just wasn’t the same.
Instead of racing at Weber State last weekend, one of a slate of nearly weekly races she planned to enter over the next two months in her final push to punch her ticket to this summer’s Paralympics, Aravich was on the track at Olympus High in her training gear. A make-shift time trial against a University of Utah athlete would be the closest she could come to a real race amidst concerns about the spread of the deadly COVID-19 virus.
It definitely didn’t feel like a race. Still, she might argue what’s happening on the track is relatively normal compared to the general upheaval of her life over the past two months. Aravich is keeping her training schedule pretty much the same through June even though Tokyo 2020 has been postponed to summer 2021. In the fallout from the virus, however, Aravich has lost her job, switched her track coach and is in the midst of moving from Salt Lake City to Park City.
What hasn’t changed is her goal. She intends to continue to pursue both sports even within this new truncated timeline. The closing ceremony for the Tokyo Paralympics is scheduled for Sept. 6, 2021. The opening ceremony for the Winter Games in Beijing is set for March 4, 2022, almost exactly six months later.
“With the position I’m in and being within spitting distance in both sports, I just feel like I need to at least give it an honest effort for both,” she said. “If I don’t make the team for one but I do make the team for another, that’s still a significant accomplishment. And depending on which sport and which experience brings me ultimately more joy and more fulfillment, then I can spend the next four years or so focusing on that sport.”
On the bright side, she now has more time to train and both sports easily fit with social distancing guidelines. Of greater concern is how she’ll pay for her Paralympic pursuits when her grants run out. Part-time modeling and marketing gigs won’t necessarily pay the bills.
The worry that she can’t outrun on the track or even on a trail deep in the woods, however, is how she can compete in both sports at an elite level at the same time. She’s well aware, as she likes to say, that she cannot serve two masters. She also isn’t ready to pick between them.
“It’s two completely different systems,” she explained. “If you think about the Nordic, it’s long-distance, anaerobic sustainability. For the sprinting, it's just the fast-twitch. So bringing the two together simultaneously is not necessarily beneficial to one another despite what people think when they first hear the two.”
If anyone can tie two worlds together, though, Englund and Kari agree it would likely be Aravich. She has proven that every time she excelled in a sport or competition meant for able-bodied athletes. She has risen to challenge after challenge, and she has basically done it with the equivalent of one hand tied behind her back.
“She just has the perfect attitude for all this,” Englund said. “She’s someone who, if she makes up her mind about something, she’s going to do it and she has no limitations. If anyone can do it, she can.”