When Muffy Davis was a teenager, she used to ski against Picabo Street, the two rivals dreaming of someday competing for Olympic gold.
Davis had that dream taken away when she was just 16 years old. During a downhill training run, Davis veered off course and suffered a severe spinal cord injury that left her paralyzed from the middle of her chest down.
But Davis’s Olympic dream turned out to be more durable than she could have imagined. With enough determination, she was able to make it come true after all.
Using a mono-ski, Davis was able once again to take up the sport she loved and qualify for the Paralympic Games in 1998 and 2002, winning four medals along the way.
After retiring from skiing, Davis took up handcycling and got the chance to live her dream yet again, winning three gold medals at the 2012 Paralympics in London.
Davis was in Bismarck on Friday to deliver the keynote presentation at a training conference for the Division of Vocational Rehabilitation, which provides employment services to people with disabilities and businesses.
“I want to motivate. I’m not talking rocket science, but we all need to be reminded about the positive,” Davis said. “We have challenges, and it’s OK to get down. I talk a lot about giving yourself permission. We don’t have to be perfect all the time. To acknowledge that feeling and let it go, so that you can choose that positive, to realize that good can come out of hard times.
“I call them the blessings of adversity,” she added. “Try to find whatever that good thing is.”
Davis acknowledged that wasn’t easy to see after she had her accident in 1989. There were both physical and mental challenges to overcome.
“My injury level was quite severe for skiing,” Davis said. “Skiing is so much core stability that getting the equipment right was difficult. This was 24 years ago, so the adaptive equipment and technology has come a long way since then.
“Essentially my seat (on the mono-ski) was like a ski boot, so we were trying to get that seat as stable and form-fitting as possible,” she continued. “Mentally it was hard, too. You can imagine getting back out on the mountain where I broke my back and trying to get over that mental fear — I knew how dangerous this sport was.”
Davis overcame that fear, but it was after watching Street win a silver medal in the downhill at the 1994 Olympics that she decided she wanted to pursue the sport at an elite level once again.
“It was while I was in college (at Stanford) that Picabo won her first medal,” Davis said. “That was pretty much the impetus for me. I really wanted it. I’m like, ‘She did it. I can do it!’”
Davis qualified for the 1998 Paralympics in Nagano, Japan. But she was unsteady on an unfamiliar course and fell in her three favorite events. She recovered in her final chance, winning the bronze in the slalom.
“To be able to get up on that podium after all of the tragedy, all of the challenges, all of the obstacles, it was amazing,” she said. “For me it was a gold medal.”
Davis was determined to do even better at the 2002 Games, even moving to Salt Lake City, Utah, to better learn the course. The result was three more medals, all silvers.
“I chose to retire after 2002,” Davis said. “I couldn’t imagine it getting any better than competing in your own country. I got on the podium three times. I got to light the cauldron. My whole family was there. It was amazing.”
But after giving birth to her daughter, Elle, Davis was looking for a way to get back in shape. That’s when she discovered handcycling. She took up the sport in 2010, with the goal of maybe competing in the 2016 Paralympics in the back of her mind.
But she got really good, really quick. Even when Davis began losing function in her left arm — necessitating a surgery to fuse her C5 and C6 vertebrae and remove a herniated disc — it barely slowed her down.
Davis says she recovered better than ever, then proved it, winning all three of her events at the 2012 Paralympics in London. Davis says she plans on competing at 2016 in Rio de Janeiro.
“I’ve got to defend my title,” she said with a laugh. “We’ll see. The goal wasn’t to be 40 years old and still competing, but I feel blessed that I can do what I love to do.”
And Davis hopes to share the message that even seemingly insurmountable obstacles don’t always prevent people from pursuing their dreams.
“That was my initial biggest fear,” she said. “I was 16 years old. My goal was to be in the Olympics, and I was in a wheelchair. What kind of life am I going to have?
“To learn that I can still do everything I want to do, just slightly differently, that was hugely empowering. I was able to go forward and have as cool a life as I wanted.”
By Lou Babiarz
More about Muffy Davis: http://www.muffydavis.com/