What a story! Sun Valley racer
named to U.S. Disabled Ski Team
The determination of Elitsa
By JODY ZARKOS
Express Staff Writer
In the beginning, the little girl
belonged to no one but herself.
Born with birth defects which
deformed her hand and leg, Elitsa Storey spent the first five years of
her life in an orphanage in Bulgaria.
She does not remember her early
years in the orphanage, or when she was adopted by Janis and Gary Storey
of Ketchum at the age of five.
Nor does Elitsa have great recall
on the operations to amputate her right leg or the toes that were
removed from the club foot and grafted onto her left hand to make
What does stand out in her memory
is her first day skiing at age seven on Dollar Mountain.
"It was tough and I got really
frustrated. Marc (Mast) was really patient with me," she said.
All of it, remembered or not, is
past history. Storey, a seven-year veteran of the Sun Valley Ski Team,
is expected to be named to the United States Disabled Ski Team in May.
At 16-year old she is one of the youngest racers ever designated to the
"It’s what I have wanted ever
since I started skiing. It is one of those little kid dreams," she said.
A dream come true, thanks to the
determination, drive and fearlessness exemplified by the 16-year old
The early years
The seeds of Elitsa’s adoption
were planted around the Elkhorn pool in the summer of 1989.
Janis recalled, "I met a woman at
the Elkhorn pool. She had adopted an eastern European child through an
agency in Port Angeles, Washington. It was a small agency run by a
dedicated group of women. I contacted them and they sent me the first
round of paperwork. I said I wanted to give an older child a home. (Gary
and Janis already had three sons, Hannes, Slater and Hunter.)
"They asked me if I would accept a
child with a disability. I really had to look inside and think, what can
I handle? What can the Ketchum area handle? It was pretty painful to go
through the checklist."
Janis and Gary said they would
take a disabled child. The agency sent two pictures. One was a much
older girl. The other was Elitsa.
It took two years for the adoption
process to unfold. In that time Elitsa marked her fourth birthday and
almost her fifth. Still, it was a triumph. She was the first handicapped
child to ever leave Bulgaria.
The family went to pick up Elitsa
in Seattle. The date was December 7, 1992, 20 days before Elitsa’s fifth
birthday. She was in a stroller, which masked the severity of her
Born prematurely, Elitsa’s right
leg was missing the knee and ankle joint and was shorter than the left.
Her foot, which was clubbed, was facing backwards. She was without all
her fingers on her left hand and her spine was curved.
She walked by sticking her shorter
leg straight out and pulling herself on her elbows.
At first a brace was used and
prosthesis fit over her deformed leg. But without a knee joint, the
Storey’s feared she might not ever be able to fully utilize the leg.
The decision to amputate the leg
was made when Elitsa was six years old.
"We just wanted her to able to do
as many things as possible," Janis said.
Still in a wheelchair after the
operation, Elitsa was in kindergarten at Hemingway Elementary.
But what people noticed about
Elitsa was not that she was missing a limb, it was her personality,
which was about as subtle as a lion.
"She was so bossy and feisty,"
Janis recalled with a laugh. "She learned English in three months."
Physically, too, Elitsa was made
great strides. Once she was upright she grew and grew.
"She went from looking like a
three-year old to the six year old she was," Janis said.
Learning to ski
Gary had tried to teach Elitsa to
ski with her prosthesis without much luck.
The Storey’s heard about ski
instructor Marc Mast who had just moved to the Valley and had experience
teaching disabled people.
Mast (who now is the director of
Sun Valley Adaptive Sports) decided to teach Elitsa to ski on one leg
using outriggers, ski poles with little skis on them.
Elitsa Storey racing in the
Laura Flood Memorial on Baldy earlier this season.
"The first time she was really
nervous. I gave her outriggers and she was real leery. But everything
went really well," Mast said.
Mast continued to work with Elitsa
and after "three or four" lessons she was ready for Baldy. It is
something not many able-bodied seven-year-olds can accomplish after six
to eight hours of instruction.
"Elitsa was a natural. I knew from
the time she was eight that if she stuck with it she would make the U.S.
Team," Mast said.
Janis concurred, "She took to it
like a duck to water. It clicked for her and that was her thing."
Sun Valley Ski Team
Elitsa joined her older brothers
on the Sun Valley Ski Team when she was nine.
"Hunter and Slater were on the ski
team and they pretty much encouraged me to start doing it," she said.
Starting out on the Development
Team, Elitsa and her peers practiced and raced on Baldy and moved up
through the ranks from D Team to C Team to B.
Though often last in races, Elitsa
was never deterred from the sport she loves.
"It was definitely challenging,
but I wanted to be part of it. I see myself as everyone else. I can do
whatever anyone else can when I put my mind to it," she stated.
Sun Valley Alpine Director Ruben
Macaya recalled a practice day on Baldy.
"We were training super G and I
thought the speed was getting a little too high for her on one ski. I
said maybe she shouldn’t make the next couple of runs. She looked at me
like ‘why shouldn’t I’? She kept doing it. Elitsa constantly challenges
She does not ask for preferential
treatment either. Sun Valley coach Scott McGrew said, "Some of the
technical stuff we tell her is different, but no one makes it special
for her. She is as much a part of the program as anyone else."
Like every other teenager, Elitsa
went through a time of angst during middle school.
"She went through a period where
she didn’t like her prosthesis," Janis said. "She wanted to hide it.
Didn’t want it. It lasted about a year."
Then Elitsa competed in her first
disabled alpine race.
"She saw the racers taking off
their legs and throwing them. She saw wheelchair athletes. She saw how
comfortable they were and after that she got over it really quickly,"
Elitsa remembered the race in
Winter Park, Colorado.
"Seeing all the other athletes
doing what they can…It just made me more determined. They all have a
disability but face it in their own way. It was neat to see."
McGrew, who has attended disabled
races with Elitsa, has nothing but praise for the competitors.
"They are extraordinary athletes.
Every single person had an incredible story of what they went through.
The level of determination is just unreal. It’s unlike anything I have
ever seen before."
Gaining strength and size, Elitsa
continued to compete in both able-bodied and disabled races.
This season, she placed in the top
five at the Huntsman Cup in Park City and was third in super G and sixth
in slalom at the U.S. Disabled Nationals in Vail.
Needing four, top-five finishes
and to finish within 10 percent of the race winner, Elitsa had to notch
another solid result to be considered for the U.S. Team.
Sun Valley Ski Education
Foundation Director Don Wiseman recounted the story behind the Eastern
Nationals in New Hampshire.
"What Gary thought was a
qualifying result wasn’t. So he looked around and found there was
another qualifying race back east, but it was in two days. He threw
Elitsa on a plane and in the meantime arranged for her to get picked up
and a place to stay. It was the last race and she won it. A lot of
athletes would have fallen apart under that pressure. The last race. It
just shows you what you have to do to make it in this game. Elitsa has
the ability to focus on the task at hand. She’s just phenomenal."
Shaking off the distractions,
including a field of U.S. Ski Team racers, Elitsa placed first in the
women’s super giant slalom.
The result was not surprising to
Macaya, who offered this observation.
"Elitsa is fierce, but very quiet.
She has a fire within. Beware when she lets loose."
As a member of the U.S. Team,
Elitsa will attend training camp in Austria in October. She will also
have to strike a balance a career as a racer while fulfilling her
academic requirements as a junior at Wood River High School in Hailey.
Janis and Gary’s family has grown
to five children with Hannes 24, 18-year old twins Hunter and Slater,
Elitsa and 9-year old Sloan.
Elitsa says it is her family and
friends who support her and give her strength to meet life’s challenges
"When I think that I am different
or not happy with who I am they push me. They help."
Like another Sun Valley racer
Muffy Davis, Elitsa hopes to compete on a world stage. Her ultimate goal
is the 2006 Paralympics.
"I would like to set an image for
other women and girls. That whatever they want to do they can do it if
they really try."
Coach McGrew believes she can.
"Elitsa is always ready to go. In
the nature of the sport, you take a lot of punishment. You have to be
ready for wrecks and crashes and pain. It is not a gentle sport. But she
never complains. Able-bodied kids ski the same course and conditions,
and Elitsa comes through and she has to work that much harder. And she
does it again and again and again. She is an inspiration."
And now, as a member of a U.S.
Team, the little girl who belonged to no one but herself, is now a young
woman who represents – and belongs – to all of us.