Teen shows courage on slopes - Loss of vision is no obstacle to teen’s olympic-sized ambitions – QNS.com

Teen shows courage on slopes – Loss of vision is no obstacle to teen’s olympic-sized ambitions

By Greg Hanlon

Fearless, she races down some of the world’s most daunting mountains at break-neck speed, smoothly weaving around slalom gates as she kicks up a trail of Rocky Mountain snow in her wake. Like most skiers, she loves the rush of speed and the closeness to danger. But Caitlin Sarubbi, a 17-year-old Brooklynite from the Gerritsen Beach area, isn’t like most skiers: Born with ablepharon macrostomia, a very rare congenital syndrome that affects facial function and vision, she is legally blind. Already the national champion among visually impaired people in her age bracket, Sarubbi is also on the cusp of qualifying for the 2010 Paralympic Games in Vancouver, the Olympic Games for athletes with physical, mental and sensorial disabilities. At the beginning of each skiing season, a skier starts with a total of 1,000 points in four categories: the Slalom, the Giant Slalom, the Super Giant Slalom and the Downhill. Over the course of the year, skiers progressively shave off points from the 1,000 they start with (the better they do in various races, the more points they lose). In order to qualify for the Paralympic Games, skiers must have fewer than 80 points in two of those four categories. Right now, Sarubbi has 57 points in the Slalom, meaning that she needs only to knock 43 points from her 123 point total in the Giant Slalom to punch her ticket to Vancouver. While most other Brooklynites are relaxing during their holiday season, the tireless Sarubbi is at a race in Park City, Utah. The Paralympic team is expected to be announced at the end of March, so each race is critical. But the pressure does not phase Sarubbi, who said she was “more excited than nervous” about the race. She allowed that she does get nervous before races, but said that she is able to convert her nerves into positive energy, a seemingly universal quality among elite athletes. “I just kind of take it and put it into my skiing,” she said, explaining how she is able to channel the butterflies in her stomach down the race course. If she does make the team, Sarubbi will be the only American competing in the Visually Impaired category. Other categories in the Paralympic Games include Aputee, Cerebral Palsy, and Wheelchair. The threshold for being legally blind is 20/200 vision. Sarubbi, who was born without eyelids, has 20/300 vision. When she skis, she follows a guide down the mountain because she cannot see for more than the length of two slalom gates in front of her. The secret to her success has been hard work: She works out regularly with a personal trainer, mostly to strengthen her legs and core muscles. Her hard work has carried over to other areas of her life as well. A student at the Dominican Academy in Manhattan, Sarubbi maintains a 94 average. She has applied to Harvard for early admission. Although she has difficulty reading – she holds the book approximately two inches from her eyes – she has become a model student, in addition to being a model athlete and a model for people with disabilities. Her work ethic was developed from the adversity she faced growing up: to date, she has had 50 cosmetic surgeries necessitated by her condition. Sarubbi was always athletic growing up, but was first introduced to skiing in 2001 when she and her family were contacted by the nationwide Disabled Sports USA foundation, which helps disabled people lead fulfilling lives through sports. After the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the foundation wanted to reach out to New York City first responders affected by the tragedy. Sarubbi’s father, John Sarubbi, is a New York City firefighter who sifted through the rubble at Ground Zero for weeks after a tragedy in which he lost one of his best friends. By rule, active firefighters cannot be disabled, so the Foundation focused its efforts on supporting firefighters who have disabled people in their families. They invited the whole Sarubbi family to Brekenridge, Colorado, for a pre-paid ski vacation. The marriage between the Foundation and the Sarubbi’s was a smashing success: Caitlin discovered she was a natural on the slopes, while her parents rekindled their passion for skiing, a sport they were into as young adults but had long since given up. Upon returning to Brooklyn, the Sarubbis, eager to keep skiing, discovered the Adaptive Sports Center in Windham Mountain in Upstate New York, a local chapter of the Disabled Sports Foundation. The family became regulars in Windham. As Caitlin blossomed into an elite skier, John and Cathy became indispensable volunteers. John serves as an instructor and Cathy helps out in a variety of ways, such as running the lunch program and performing administrative duties. Their efforts did not go unnoticed: This past year, the family was selected as the 2007 “Ski Family of the Year.” September 11 will forever go down as a sad day in the Sarubbi household, but the tragedy was not in vain. Cathy Sarubbi spoke for the pride and gratitude of her whole family, saying: “Out of something so horrible, it’s nice that something so great came about.” For more information on the Adaptive Sports Center in Windham Mountain, call (518) 734-5070, or go to www.adaptivesportsfoundation.org

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