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Guelph skier has her eye on Paralympics

As she readies for Grade 12, Abbey Van Duzer receives $10,000 grant to help with her sport

Despite the hot weather, Guelph’s Abbey Van Duzer is thinking about skiing, as in alpine skiing.

A member of Alpine Ontario’s para ski team, Van Duzer is anxious to get the adrenalin rush she gets from the sport.

“I just love the adrenalin,” she said. “Getting ready to go, you're in the race hut counting down from 10 and everyone's screaming at you. It's just so much fun. I just got a really good passion for it after a while and I've always wanted to pursue it and maybe go to the Olympics.”

Van Duzer, who’ll start her Grade 12 year at Centennial CVI next month, was recently selected by Petro-Canada, the Canadian Olympic Committee, Canadian Paralympic Committee and the Coaching Association of Canada to receive a Fuelling Athletes and Coaching Excellence (FACE) Program grant for $10,000 with half of the total to go to her coaches.

“That’s pretty big for me,” she said. “I know 55 athletes (from both summer and winter sports) got it and I’m really, really grateful for it especially since with COVID we spent a lot of money on skiing and nothing really happened. It’s definitely something that in the future is going to help me achieve my goals.”

Van Duzer was born with Proximal Femoral Focal Deficiency (PFFD) and Fibular Hemimelia and had her right leg amputated when she was three years old.

“They affect your hip and the length of your leg and femur areas and it just basically makes one leg shorter than the other,” she explained. “You just basically have to amputate it because it's not going to be the same length as your other leg so you get a prosthetic and you're able to do everything everybody else can do.”

And some things she can do a lot better than most other people – like skiing, a sport she started when she was eight, after friends of the family told her and her parents about skiing and the programs available for para athletes.

“I started actually in Track 3 at Craighleith when I was eight years old and I was there until I was about 12,” Van Duzer said. “They taught me all the basics and it was really fun. It was a great program and I recommend it to anyone who wants to get into it.”

Track 3 is the Ontario Track 3 Ski Association that is geared toward para skiers.

“I got into a beginning-to-race program with a coach named Gwen Binsfeld,” Van Duzer said. “She taught me more of the basics of racing and how I should prepare myself for the future, how I should feed myself with nutrition and working out and all those basics.

“And then around 14 or 15 years old I was scouted for Team Ontario by David White and Mark Newton and Sandy Nattress. When I got on Team Ontario, they taught me more in depth of racing and how I could get faster and better my chances and I met a lot of great friends along the way. Now at 16 and 17, I'm a prospect for Team Canada and hopefully in a year or two I'm on that. That's basically the whole journey.”

Van Duzer’s racing debut came in the fun races Track 3 held during their family days.

“I don't remember the first ever race, I mostly remember the races that mean a lot to me like Canada Winter Games and stuff like that – the ones that really put me out there – and Nationals,” she said. “I don't recall (the first race), but I'm sure it was fun.”

She remembers the Canada Winter Games of 2019 hosted by Red Deer, Alta., at the Nakiska Ski Resort where she won a bronze medal in slalom and finished fourth in giant slalom. She also had top-10 finishes in giant slalom at both the Canadian and U.S. championships at Winter Park in Colorado that year and a top-10 in slalom in the U.S. meet.

Which discipline does she like best?

“This is a very tricky question because I love GS more than all of them, but I'm better at slalom than all of them,” she answered. “It's kind of like a love-hate relationship with slalom.”

While she has practised both downhill and super G, Van Duzer hasn’t competed in either due to the pandemic. She wasn’t allowed to race in either of those two disciplines before COVID hit due to a minimum age restriction.

While the pandemic forced the cancellation of most races, a crash during a camp also kept Van Duzer off the hills.

“I went out west for a camp and I was staying with a teammate of mine in Calgary,” she said. “We went out because I hadn't skied that year at all. It was my first time out, I worked really hard in dryland to be able to do it and I skied totally fine and probably three days in when I was just there to get my legs back, I actually got a concussion, a pretty good one. I'm still actually recovering from it today and it was in January. It was pretty intense, but it's slowly going away and hopefully I can get back into all the events I'm able to this year.”

Van Duzer considered her tumble to be a “pretty decent” one.

“I was on some Super G skis, just warming up and not even on the course,” she said. “It was very flat light. I had the flat light goggles on, but it didn't help too much. There was a really big roller that I didn't see so I kind of jumped it, got some air and then I hit another one right after that. My knee actually came right into my jaw. I flipped around and smashed my head on the ground. I didn't even know what a concussion was, what it felt like because this was my first. I have contacts and my contact was falling out of my eye and I was like 'What's happening here?' Like the kind of weirdo I am, I got up and went back up on the ski lift.

“I was there to ski and I didn't know what was happening. As soon as I got on top of the hill, I started to feel all the symptoms and I started throwing up in my mouth a little bit. Headaches. I quit after that for a couple of weeks.”

After returning to Guelph, Van Duzer has received help at the Shift Concussion Management Clinic.

“They were really good,” she said. “They helped me a lot and they got most of the intense symptoms to go away – the headache and the dizziness and the light and noise sensitivity. That was an amazing experience there.”

Van Duzer also has a condition where she can only see out of one eye at a time and that has limited the therapy that can be done.

“I've had it for my whole life so it's kind of normal for me and I can switch between them,” she said. “I can see whatever, just not (out of both eyes) at the same time. It's not too difficult just because I've had it for my whole life, but I'm sure if someone had it now it would be a little difficult to get used to.

“You can't tell when I switch it, but I can switch it just by looking. It's very weird.”

When Van Duzer skies, she does so on one leg.

“It's hard, especially when you're going fast on the hill,” she said. “Balance is key and for me it's a little easier because I've grown up balancing on one leg for simple things, just getting a cup out of the cupboard or jumping rope and working out. I usually work out with one leg unless I go to the gym just because I'm a little shy, but I'm working on the confidence so it'll be okay. (Skiing on one leg is) kind of normal to me, but sometimes it is challenging, especially going really fast in Super G. You could hit a little bump and you could fly everywhere.”

Van Duzer is hoping to resume skiing in November when the provincial team is to go to Panorama, B.C., for a two-week camp there that is to be followed by several races out west.

“I'm really hoping that I'll be fully recovered by November,” she said. “I've been thinking about getting back on the hill ever since I got my concussion. And when I did have my concussion, I was like 'Oh my God, I want to go back on the hill.' I actually tried to go back, but once I got suited up I didn't feel so good so I had to go back to the hotel. I was very determined to get back on the hill and I did try multiple times, but it didn't work out. I'm very, very anxious to get back on the hill.”