It’s All Downhill

By Peter Axelson, M.S.M.E.

During the years I’ve spent designing and building mono-skis, I’ve learned to draw on the experience of others. Motocross-suspension experts can work wonders with mono-skis, wheelchair-seating and road-racing specialists can provide insight regarding seating and body-positioning technology, and ski designers and tuners can apply their knowledge to the selection and tuning of appropriate skis.

Every mono-skier needs to be somewhat of an expert in all these fields. If you want to buy your own mono-ski, first take lessons and try out the program equipment. Get as much experience as possible so when you’re ready to make a purchase you can choose the equipment right for you.

If your mono-skiing program plans to buy new equipment, do research and ask around to determine which type will provide the greatest flexibility and adjustability for a variety of users. Take the time to carefully set up equipment for your students. Sending them onto the slopes with improper ski positioning leads to frustration and wasted time.

Mono-skiing can be dangerous. Athletes must balance on a single ski while moving at high speeds. The lower body is securely positioned in the equipment. This means that during a fall, the mass of equipment and body can come down on the shoulders, head, or neck, causing severe injury.

New skiers are often eager to move onto faster, steeper terrain before they’re ready. Even when this doesn’t lead to accidents, they often exceed their balance capabilities and develop habits of leaning into the hill and banking, which will prove detrimental to their long-term skills.

It’s important to learn how to fall. I discovered the hard way that trying to stop the fall with my outriggers was a mistake. Now when I fall I tuck my outriggers into my sides and try to slide. Mono-skis tend to stop quickly anyway.

All programs should teach students how to fall, and they should keep incident records on file. Such information is invaluable for improving mono-ski design and training methods.

Mono-skis enable people without the use of both legs to ski. Bi-skis have two skis and a mechanism that angulates (the act of shifting body mass to the side in order to put the ski on edge) them into the snow when users lean on the equipment. Think of the equipment from a technical viewpoint: a dynamic skiing orthosis.

A mono-ski and a customized leg prosthesis with hydraulic dampeners have a lot in common. Both must be custom-fit to the remaining functional body component, and both use cams, artificial linkages, and other components to bridge the gap between the body and the ground and hydraulic components.

Try to find an adaptive ski program with staff members who are experienced and certified as instructors. A good instructor will try to determine students’ levels of previous experience and other related sports interests. They will also try to learn a little about students’ general fitness abilities, learning styles, and their goals and expectations for a particular lesson or group of lessons. A certified instructor can make the entire learning process more rewarding and less frustrating. It’s important to share specific information you have about primary or secondary disabilities as well as medications you’re taking that might affect your balance or attentiveness on the slopes.

If it’s been less than a year since your spinal-cord injury (SCI), the program will probably require a medical release from your doctor. If you’ve had a back fusion, to allow healing don’t try skiing until a year has passed.

The assessment for your lesson is based on determining your fore/aft and lateral balance as well as flexibility at the waist, knees, and trunk; this will determine seating in your ski. Arm and grip strength indicate whether you want to bi- or mono-ski. It’s possible for people with T5 injuries and above to bi-ski, but the higher your injury level the more challenging and often frustrating it can be learning to balance and control a mono-ski.

If you’re an aggressive person and your heart is set on mono-skiing, give it a try. On the other hand, if you don’t plan to ski often and just want to have fun, bi-skiing is a way to get started quickly and participate with family and friends.

Mono-skiers must recognize the hazards of a winter environment. They need padding or cushioning to protect their skin from impact and pressure, and they should choose clothing that won’t bunch up or cause wrinkles in the seating area. Long underwear and stretch ski pants are good for racing, but they can be inconvenient when you’re wearing urinary-drainage hardware. Oversized warm-up pants allow more room, and after-ski boots provide protection and warmth. Avoid boot heaters, as several U.S. Ski Team members have experienced burns from them because they can’t feel the heat.

Wear goggles whenever possible, but avoid sunglasses that can break and cause facial injuries. Helmets are required for Super G or downhill, and they are critical for slalom when training with gates that can strike skiers in the face or in the back of the head.

Always wear a helmet when mono-skiing. When you spin around backward, it’s quite common for the tail of the ski to dig into the snow and flip you backward onto your head. And since your mono-ski is not designed to release from your ski, if your ski gets caught, a fall can result in tumbling. A helmet’s greatest benefit could potentially be during chairlift loading or unloading. If you get hit by another person or the chairlift, your head is protected.

Shoulder exercises are important for building strength and preventing injury. Wheelchair users are good at muscle actions that involve pushing forward, but mono-skiers must resist forces that push the arms up and back. To develop those muscles, perform exercises by raising your arms in various positions while using bungee cords or light weights to help strengthen rotator-cuff muscles.

When setting up your own or program equipment, use the appropriate seat cushion to provide pressure relief. Stabilize your pelvis in a dynamic position so you’re not sitting back or slouched in the mono-ski. Position the feet and knees to allow as much forward flexion as possible. Your trunk should be in an upright and active position so you can quickly react moving fore and aft.

If you own your equipment and you’re trying to determine what to put underneath your mono-ski, consider the newer shaped skis, but not radically shaped ones. Shaped skis can be a disadvantage for people just learning, but the skis can allow individuals to make nice turns once they develop to the intermediate level.

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