Steamboat’s Paige VanArsdale has fought through cerebral palsy to pursue her love of skiing
Steamboat Springs — The day that Steamboat Springs High School student Paige VanArsdale’s back didn’t writhe in pain after a day of skiing is when her life on the slopes suddenly changed forever.
Since the day Paige turned 3 years old, her way of growing up in Steamboat Springs was very much like any other kid her age. When it came to sign up for soccer, her mom, Melissa, got her on a team right away. When she wanted to try horseback riding, her family put her on a horse. Paige has played volleyball, swam competitively and joined the Sailors’ girls cross country team this fall.
But unlike most high school freshman athletes, Paige has an added obstacle, one that is hard to ignore and impossible to hide.
Paige has cerebral palsy, a condition that affects brain and nervous system functions. No CP patient is the same, but all show obvious signs.
Melissa VanArsdale said when she was pregnant with Paige, her daughter tossed and turned regularly in utero. Then 10 days before her scheduled delivery, Paige stopped turning.
When Steamboat doctors found Paige’s heart rate to be alarmingly low, they performed an emergency premature C-section, which revealed the umbilical chord wrapped tightly around her neck.
“All the sudden she turned blue, and the nurses were all over it,” Melissa said.
Paige was immediately flown to Children’s Hospital Colorado, where she remained in the NICU for two weeks, unable to be touched by her older brother, Kaleb. Her parents got rare visits in the intensive care unit.
Red flags were waved, Melissa said, when before Paige’s second birthday, it was obvious something was different.
“She was delayed on everything,” Melissa said. “When they diagnosed her, she was a year-and-a-half old. They just said, ‘She has CP.’ They didn’t say much more than that.”
No resources were recommended to the VanArsdales, no doctors to consult, not even a pamphlet defining what cerebral palsy was.
What it proved to be for Paige was a severe growth dysfunction in her right leg. It also affects her learning and communication abilities.
Until April 13, 2012, Paige’s right leg was much shorter than her left. That same leg also grew inverted, making her severe limp even worse.
What did all this mean when it came to skiing in Steamboat? Despite all the gadgets Paige and her skiing coaches tried, the inches missing off her right leg came with debilitating pain in her back after skiing.
“It was so difficult,” Paige said. “It was really hard on my back. I wanted to quit earlier than the rest of the kids.”
Impressing her hero
That day in April 2012, Paige VanArsdale went under the knife at Children’s Hospital Colorado to help relieve an incurable disorder so the teenager could be as “normal” as possible.
The doctors lengthened the calf and hamstring muscles in her right leg. They shifted her patella sideways and down, and sliced her femur, rotated it outward and screwed in a plate to reverse the inversion.
During her non-weight-bearing seven-week recovery period, Paige found her first athletic love: swimming. Nearly every day she would dip into the Old Town Hot Springs lap pool and swim.
“That was all she could do,” her mom said. “Swimming just became her favorite.”
Sports in general are her favorite, but it’s a love driven by something beyond competition where more often than not, she can’t beat out able-bodied athletes.
Her brother, Kaleb — an all-state lacrosse player last year for the Sailors and now a member of the DePauw University squad — is one of her best friends. Making Kaleb proud is as good as any gold medal to Paige.
“He pushes her to the limit and expects the most from her,” Melissa said. “She really wants to please and impress him.”
It was Kaleb who urged her to be part of the girls cross country team this season, telling his sister it’s a great way to be involved with a team and keep busy after school. It’s also Kaleb, among others, who Paige loves to impress with her rebuilt leg on the slopes as a second-year competitive skier — a pain-free skier.
“It doesn’t hurt at all,” Paige said about her back and surgically repaired leg. “Last year, when I was walking back to the car to go home after my first day skiing after surgery, I was walking completely fine.”
Learning to love competition
Paige is coming off a showing at the NASTAR National Championships last March in Snowmass and relentlessly has trained post-surgery with her Steamboat Adaptive Recreational Sports coach Tommy Moore.
But Paige — an admittedly stubborn and self-reliant athlete — didn’t always enjoy ski racing, disabled leg or not.
She resisted the kids favorite Soda Pop Slalom at the annual Winter Carnival. She entered a few ski races, but the disinterest was obvious to her parents.
There was a proven method to snap Paige out of this funk, though: Get Kaleb involved.
“She still didn’t have much interest to race but decided to join to become a better skier so she could ski with her brother,” Melissa said. “Then it was Tommy who sparked her interest when he coached her.”
Moore has been working with Paige for a year now, starting from the ground up on race technique in STARS’ newly formed development racing team.
“When Paige and I first started working together, she just immediately wanted to get into racing,” Moore said. “She was one of the first to sign up. She’s one of the hardest working and dedicated teenagers I know. She’s just hungry, and it’s very, very exciting.”
During the summer, Moore and Melissa heard about a scholarship opportunity for athletes like Paige to spend the first week of December in Breckenridge at the Hartford Ski Spectacular, an event hosted by Disabled Sports USA, one of the country’s largest winter sports festivals of its kind.
Paige applied and ultimately was granted the all-inclusive full scholarship to continue to live out her newfound dream of ski racing.
“The future of adaptive racers is going to be there, along with many summer and winter paralympians,” Moore said. “She’ll be training alongside some of the best in the world, which is an incredible opportunity for a young teenager.”
Pain free on a repaired leg that still sports a limp but not nearly as profound, Paige is eying the future. She will continue to compete with Moore’s guidance and also will be part of the high school’s Alpine team this winter.
Paige is a bit hard-headed, Melissa said, but her motherly advice resonates with her now ultra-competitive daughter.
“She just wants to do well,” Melissa said. “As long as we tell her to do the best for herself, it makes it easier. ‘You’re not racing against them. You race against yourself.’”
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