Editor’s note: This story is jointly published by nonprofits Amplify Utah and The Salt Lake Tribune, in collaboration with Salt Lake Community College, to elevate diverse perspectives in local media through student journalism.
Alpine skier Jesse Keefe has been busy. Since November, the 17-year-old has traveled to British Columbia, Switzerland, Norway and Sweden, racing the best adaptive skiers in the world.
Now, Keefe is in Beijing, where he’ll represent the United States of America, alongside fellow skiers Ravi Drugan and Andrew Haraghey, when the 2022 Winter Paralympic Games begin Friday. While the three men hail from Sun Valley, Idaho; Drugan, Ore.; and Salt Lake City, respectively, they also call Park City home as athletes at the National Ability Center.
The National Ability Center (NAC) is a non-profit organization based in Park City, whose programs are designed for individuals of all abilities, including those with physical, developmental and intellectual disabilities. At the 2018 Paralympic Winter Games, NAC athletes received 7 medals. And the NAC’s ski and snowboard teams have prepared myriad athletes for success at the highest levels again this year.
Keefe, the youngest alpine skier on Team USA, wasn’t sure there would be a spot for him, which are determined by the points and ranking in qualifying races and the number of slots made available by the International Paralympic Committee. But that didn’t stop Keefe from buying a plane ticket in advance. Then, two weeks before he was supposed to fly out, word came that he’d be on the team during the Games in China.
“I can’t believe a life goal of mine is actually coming true,” he wrote on social media.
Now that he knows he will indeed be going, he’s already thinking about the next one, he said.
“I’m going to do my best, but I’m only 17. I’ve got at least another Games or two in me,” he said. “I’ll know what it’s going to be like the next time, so I can fully prepare myself and get the most of my training for the next four years.”
Keefe started skiing at age two and has raced in a World Championship and several World Cups, winning gold in both slalom and giant slalom at the 2021 National Championships in Winter Park, Colo. Keefe, an amputee born without an ankle bone in his right leg, skis under the LW4 classification, a Paralympic Alpine and Nordic ski designation that stands for “Locomotion Winter,” and means he has an impairment in one leg only. He skis standing with a prosthetic inside of a regular boot.
Although Keefe mainly trains at his hometown mountain of Sun Valley, he’s also spent a lot of time at the NAC with Head Alpine Coach Erik Leirfallom.
“They’ve helped me get to where I am now, building up points and eventually getting to race against the national team. Once I started beating some of their guys, that’s how I got on,” he said. “I could call Eric right now and ask him for advice. It’s just that kind of relationship.”
Haraghey, a Salt Lake native
Keefe will join 26-year-old Haraghey, who raced at the 2018 Winter Paralympic Games in PyeongChang and has been on the national team for five years.
In early February, Haraghey raced at the Huntsman Cup World Para Alpine Ski qualifying race, hosted by the National Ability Center at Park City Mountain. He had already qualified for the Games, but the event was an important training opportunity, one of the last in an intensive year of training and preparation.
Haraghey skis under the LW1 designation and has lower-body impairment in both legs due to Cerebral Palsy. He started skiing at age 7, and has been racing for more than a decade, but it took some time to find the best equipment.
“I use a regular set of two skis and then outriggers, [which are] like forearm crutches with skis on the bottom,” he said. “They provide a little extra balance and support. I have my ski tips tied together … because of my disability, sometimes my feet rotate outward, and it’s not exactly fast to be going into reverse snowplow racing down the hill, so that helps keep my skis more parallel.”
Haraghey initially raced without outriggers, but once he tried them, they helped his form and technique.
“They just let me work around my disability a little better.”
A Utah native, Haraghey trains regularly with the NAC. There, he benefited from having an experienced and consistent coach, he said.
“Having a solid coaching base and someone who’s seen your progression, can give you that feedback and know what you need — or don’t need — to help you develop is super helpful,” said Haraghey, who recently has spent a lot of training time at the center to get back to competition level after a few injuries last year.
X Games to Beijing
While Keefe and Haraghey ski upright with two skis, 32-year-old Ravi Drugan uses a monoski, or sit-ski. Like Keefe, this will be his first Paralympic Games. And although he’s no stranger to competition, it was only recently he started turning his sights toward Beijing.
“When I was a little kid, I always wanted to be a pro skateboarder in the X Games,” he said. “I ended up going to the X Games for monoski and getting a medal there. But even being on the national team was never something I necessarily was striving to do.”
Still, Drugan, who lost both of his legs above the knee at the age of 15 after being hit by a train, said he wanted to compete against the “best guys in the world.”
“I just wanted to be the best skier I can be,” he said. “It [wasn’t] until last season [that] it started becoming apparent that I was going to have a shot at going to the Paralympic Games.”
Drugan’s racing expertise is in monoski X, or monoski cross, a freestyle event in which numerous skiers simultaneously race a course with jumps, gaps and berms. But there are no freestyle skiing events at the Paralympics. There, he’ll be competing in slalom, giant slalom, super g, slalom combined, and possibly downhill. Adjusting his training to prepare for those events has been rewarding, he said.
“I started ski racing because that’s what I was bad at, skiing down a hard icy slope,” he said. “I can go free ski anything, but [with racing], setting up a certain turn radius and a designated number of turns? Sounds good to me.”
While Drugan said he has enjoyed training for events that are relatively new to him and is eager to compete at the most prominent event in his sport, he has the long-term goal of pushing the progression of adaptive skiing. With his background in freestyle, he wants to show what is possible on a sit ski.
“Racing’s a fun challenge, and who wouldn’t like timing themselves against the best in the world, but I’m not just a ski racer. I’m a skier,” he said. “I ski everything, but I have the most fun skiing out in the trees and out in the moguls and in the terrain park, where there is so much potential.”
After the Games, he said, he plans to get back into the terrain park.
“Over the years, I’ve tried to show the adaptive community that we can ski anything a non-disabled skier can,” he said. “I’d like to prove that.”
Drugan may not be a Utah native, but he keeps finding the time to return to Park City after a decade of competition. Some of his first races were hosted by the National Ability Center.
“The NAC kind of took me under the wing,” he said. “They helped me be the racer and freeskier I am now. Ripping around Utah was the first time I ever skied bottomless, super soft snow. It keeps me coming back. It is like they say, the greatest snow in the world.”
Matt Didisheim wrote this story as a journalism student at Salt Lake Community College. It is published as part of a new collaborative including nonprofits Amplify Utah and The Salt Lake Tribune.