‘Paving the way’: Israel’s first winter Paralympian to ski in Beijing on one leg

Sheina Vaspi, a Hasidic woman from northern Israel, skis at speeds up to 55 mph; hopes to inspire next generation of Paralympic athletes

Luke Tress is an editor and a reporter in New York for The Times of Israel.

Israeli Paralympic skier Sheina Vaspi. (Courtesy/International Paralympic Committee)
Israeli Paralympic skier Sheina Vaspi. (Courtesy/International Paralympic Committee)

Israel’s first-ever winter Paralympian, Sheina Vaspi, will compete in alpine skiing in the Beijing games next week.

Vaspi, 20, lost her left leg in a traffic accident when she was a toddler.

She glides down the slopes on a single ski, using two short blades at the bottom of her ski poles for balance and steering. She competes in several events and can reach speeds of 55 miles per hour.

The weeklong Paralympic Winter Games will begin on March 4. Over 650 athletes representing 49 teams will compete in 78 events.

Vaspi grew up in Yesud Hama’ala, a moshav in northern Israel’s Hula Valley.

“We came back from a family gathering in Haifa and at the Kadarim Junction a bus hit our car. The car didn’t survive, my leg didn’t survive. No big deal,” she told Channel 12 last year.

Vaspi started skiing several years ago with the Erez Foundation, a non-profit in northern Israel that was founded by veterans of the military’s alpine special forces unit and search and rescue specialists. The foundation works with special needs youth and disabled soldiers, including with ski training on Mount Hermon.

“Honestly, it becomes simple when you get good at it and you love it, so to go skiing is not that complicated for me. The training, improving — that’s hard,” Vaspi said.

“It depends on how you look at it. Okay, I don’t have one of my legs. It’s not that dramatic,” she said.

Vaspi is a Hasidic Jew from the Chabad movement, which presented her with problems when she started competing, since organizers did not allow her to wear a skirt, as is required by religious dress codes.

“At the beginning there were ‘safety problems,’ they called it. They told me it probably wouldn’t be allowed, but in the end, to me it’s a total miracle because despite all odds they gave me permission,” she said. “I train in a skirt and compete in a skirt and there won’t be any problems in the future for competing in a skirt.”

The Erez Foundation has helped Vaspi develop as a skier and supported her financially.

She now trains at the National Sports Center for the Disabled in Colorado.

Last month, Vaspi was the first Israeli to ever compete in the Para Snow Sports World Championships, held in Norway, taking 13th place overall.

“I’m very excited and very proud to lead my country’s challenge at the Games for the first time. It is a great honor and, hopefully, this will open doors for many more athletes to take up snow sports,” Vaspi told the International Paralympic Committee.

Israeli Paralympic skier Sheina Vaspi. (Courtesy/Erez Foundation)

“I really hope to pave the way and give more kids the opportunity to get on the mountain, children with disabilities,” she told Channel 12.

Eli Birnbaum, chairman of the Israeli Paralympic Committee, said, “We’re so proud that a sun-soaked country like ours has a representative in this winter arena. This is a badge of honor for everyone involved.”

Israel traditionally has a strong summer Paralympics team and sports culture for the disabled. At the Tokyo Paralympics last year, the team brought home nine medals, six of them gold. Thirty-three Israeli athletes competed in 11 sports, winning medals in swimming and rowing.

The Israeli Winter Olympics delegation did not win any medals in Beijing this month, but still surpassed expectations. Skier Barnabas Szollos achieved a surprising sixth-place finish in Israel’s best-ever Olympic skiing result, and Vladislav Bykanov became Israel’s most successful speed skater by placing 12th in a 500m race.

Israel has sent athletes to every Winter Olympics since 1994 and has never won a medal, although officials have said they have more modest goals. Just qualifying for the Winter Olympic Games is a considerable achievement for Israel’s athletes, officials said this year.

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