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Produced & Maintained by Idaho Mountain Express, Box 1013, Ketchum, ID 83340-1013 
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Copyright © 2003 Express Publishing Inc.
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Friday — April 2, 2004


What a story! Sun Valley racer named to U.S. Disabled Ski Team

The determination of Elitsa Storey

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.

Elitsa Storey

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 fingers.

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 squad.

"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 girl.


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 handicaps.

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 herself."

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," Janis said.

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."


Elitsa takes off

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."


The future

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 chin-up, head-on.

"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.


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The Idaho Mountain Express is distributed free to residents and guests throughout the Sun Valley, Idaho resort area community. Subscribers to the Idaho Mountain Express will read these stories and others in this week's issue.