I sat in the warming hut at the top of the jump, filled with 20 Olympians, all competing for the same spot on the podium, the gold medal. I pushed my ear buds into my ears even tighter to block out the distracting sound. I was listening to “Hot in Here” by Nelly, the song I always listened to before a race. The lyrics filled my mind with memories of my dad attempting to do the wave in the passenger seat of the car as my mom drove and my sister and I rolled our eyes in embarrassment in the back seat.
“Sabrina Palmer, 2 time gold medalist is up next. Lots of pressure on her tonight, Jim” a booming voice said from above.
I slowly looked up and took a deep breath. It was my time to shine. Everything, the future of my career, was riding on that one run. I grabbed my skis, ripped the ear buds out, shoved them in my pocket and made my way over to the event staff waiting at the starting line.
“You got this, Palmer. I believe in you,” a staff member, but also a former member of team USA, said as I zipped up my Under Armor full-body suit and buckled my helmet tight. The skin-tight suit was scribbled with red, white and blue, colors I could never be more proud to wear.
I made my way down to the starting block; slushy, used snow with a harsh green line spray-painted across the 9 foot wide jump. I snapped my boots into my red Atomic brand skis, almost 2 feet taller than I. The crowd screamed and waved their hands, all supportive, no matter what country they were ultimately cheering for. I looked up from my skis and just past the tall, packed full stands to see a snow capped mountain labeled with "PC" for Park City, similar to the Hollywood sign. I knew the city like nobody else in the competition did, but it felt so different. Suddenly, the peaceful ski town in Utah had become an insane scene for the stands of the 2002 Winter Olympics.
Now, here I am, 12 years later, visiting the empty, disserted site that was once the most exciting place in the world to me. My husband grips the handles of my wheelchair and pushes me past the men’s bobsled start, watching tour groups being simplistically educated about the sport. We pass behind the group of tourists, over hearing some claiming to be huge Olympic fans. I make eye contact and smile at almost everyone, and not a single person knows whom I am. In 2002, I was on the front page of every newspaper in the county. Now, not even someone who is an “expert” in the sport has any idea who I am. We continue going up the paved road, winding around the mountain. Josh pushes me on the white line on the side of the road as huge trucks labeled Salt Lake City 2002 with the Olympic circles whip passed me. I turn my head and look into the back of the open truck filled with bobsleds being taken back to the start. My eyes follow the truck as it slowly drives up the steep mountain road, to the people paying ridiculous amounts of money to pretend they are Olympians. I can see the driver, an old man, grey hair and beard, eyebrows raised, struggling to switch gears on the truck. His oily face reflects in the rear view mirror. He thinks he has it tough; my husband is pushing a grown woman up a steep hill. My wheelchair squeaks and I reach for the wheels to reinforce the uphill motion. We finally make it to the top of the hill, and pass the warming hut where I sat 12 years ago. We open the unlocked gate and walk inside. We both stop at the end of the paved path and look into the distance.
“Look at this, Honey, the view is incredible,” Josh says in amazement.
“It always has been absolutely beautiful,” I reply.
“I know this setting brings back a lot of emotions, but I’m so proud of you for being here,” he says and kisses me.
I wheel myself up to the fake snow on the jump and stop. I flashback to the Olympics.
I was sitting at the top of the 120m ski jump, looking down the steep, narrow hill and I could feel my heart beating out of my chest. I wiggled my skis around in the imprinted tracks to make sure they were in place. I took a deep breath, slid my goggles over my eyes and tucked my few disobedient blond bangs back into my helmet, and then I was off. I threw my hips forward, and then jerked them back to get momentum. I let go of the bar and folded my body into a crouched position. My chest was flat against my thighs and my arms glued to my side, proper ski jump technique. I raced down the hill at what I would later learn was almost 70 miles per hour. I could feel the wind hitting and burning my face. I licked my chapped lips then returned to a straight face. My whole body fell down then was raised back up as I skied the dip in the jump. I was in the air and I leaned forward as far as I could. My dad always called this the flying squirrel. I turned my feet out so my skis formed a “V” shape. All of the sudden, I heard a soft pop and my left leg felt heavier. I lost my balance completely and I was starting to twist to the left. Instinctively, I snapped my head around only to notice that my left heel binding had fallen off. My boot was only attached to my ski in the front, so it flew up and I put my arm out to the side to stop it from hitting my face. The fake grass Olympic symbol in the snow was getting closer and closer. I fell forward, screaming every second, though I don’t know if I even needed to because the whole stadium was screaming for me. I flipped head over heals, my arms wailing and flapping to the side and only one ski fully attached to my feet. My upper back hit square on the ground. I remember thinking I would stop falling right there, but that was not the case. I bounced right off the snow as if it were a trampoline. A shooting pain went up my spine and I arched my back. I rolled one more time, this one closer to the ground loosing both skis, each as they came in contact with the hard snow. My feet flung around me to point uphill and my whole helmet filled with the freezing snow. I was by being suffocated by the snow, falling face first until I finally came to a stop. I rolled onto my back and looked up at the clear sky, unsure of what just happened. The crowd went silent, waiting for any sign of movement signaling I was ok. I think I blacked out for a moment or maybe I was just in shock. The next thing I remembered is people hovering over me asking question.
“Are you ok?” one asked, a seemingly simple question although I had no idea how to answer.
“Do you know what day it is and where you are?” another spoke into my ear.
“Ask her what hurts,” a man said from the back of the crowd.
“I think so. Its mostly my neck and back,” I whispered. At that moment, I remembered the hundreds of stories my grandfather told to me as a child, but only one stood out; a woman that had become paralyzed after an awful equestrian accident. Could that possibly be happening to me? I thought.
“Sabrina, could you lift your leg for a moment so I can take your boot off?” the first medic said in a calming voice.
I tried, but I wasn’t moving.
“I can’t,” I said, as tears filled my eyes.
“Stay calm, Sabrina, everything will be all right” she said, staring me in the eyes in hopes of instilling me with courage. She turned her head and nodded at the lady behind her.
“Cal, bring the stretcher,” I heard the woman speak into the communication device on her coat.
Five of the medics fitted a foam brace around my neck then log-rolled me onto the board. I was gently placed on the stiff orange board then strapped in by long strips of Velcro. The medics gripped the handles and lifted me onto the sled with a very loud and synchronized count of 3. One man, the biggest one, stared straight at me as he yelled over the crowd,
“Hang in there, Hun. You can do this. We will have you at the hospital shortly,”
The rest of the medics struggled to find an opening in the banner separating the slope and the crowd and hollered at the people to clear a path for me. I spotted my family, all three of them plus four grandparents at the rope, crying and pushing thru the masses trying to reach me.
“Sir, you have to let me see my daughter right now!” My dad screamed and pointed at the security guard with anger.
“I understand. Wait until she passes the crowd and I will lead you to-” And that is all I heard of that conversation before the gasps of the audience overpowered the yelling.
That was the day my life changed forever. I was the up-and-coming woman’s ski jump champion. Now, I am thankful for so much more than that. I scrunch up my sleeve to look at my watch.
“We have five minutes until check in, Josh, do you want to start walking over there?” I say and point to the main building we passed on the way up here.
He nods and pushes me down the hill. I can hear his shoes slamming on the pavement, all his weight being used to stop me from rolling faster than he can walk. At the bottom of the hill, he pushes me up the wheelchair ramp to get to the entrance. We stop so he can regain his breath. I reach for the handle to open the door and struggle to pull it towards me while avoiding my wheelchair. We get inside and check in at the front desk.
“Hi, I’m here to check in. My name is Sabrina Palmer,” I say and smile at the women behind the desk.
“Great! You two can go right over there. The lecture court is being cleared out as we speak and they will be ready for you in just a moment. The children are running a little late but it will give you extra time to set up,” she says in a soft, kind voice.
We wait about five minutes before an audio-visual expert helping with the presentation greets us. The man pushes me into the lecture court to give Josh a break. Soon enough, the round tables are filled with kids that are where I was many years ago, eagerly awaiting the start of the presentation. Josh wheels me on stage, the Powerpoint shows up on the screen and I start speaking,
“First of all, thank you all for coming this afternoon. My name is Sabrina Palmer and this is my husband Josh. I am a 2-time Olympic ski jump gold medalist and Women’s Paralympic sit ski champion. This is the story of how a passion saved my life,”