“Don’t give up. Even though the first few years you’re going to fall every five seconds, don’t give up.” That’s Emily Trepanier’s advice to aspiring snowboarders. But like a lot of things this inspiring athlete has to say, it seems like she’s really just talking about life.
Meet Emily: a thirty-year-old blind snowboarder that constantly gets mistaken for a teenager. It could be her young appearance or her happy go lucky attitude, but after spending a couple hours with Emily I realized why I thought she was still in high school: it’s her spirit. Emily has got one of those special personalities that just makes you happier when you’re around her. She’s bright, she’s funny, she’s positive, and she’s fearless. This lady treats every new struggle as an exciting challenge to be conquered and works her butt off until she has. When I asked her what her favourite part about being a snowboarder is she said, “I like the challenge. I like when I’m able to do something that I’ve never done before.”
Emily is always trying something new; she didn’t start out snowboarding. As a child, she says her “…parents always pushed me to do things that I wanted to do. They always treated me the same and even though I couldn’t see, I felt like a normal kid. I was really active; I did gymnastics, swimming, and played basketball.”
Emily started out on the hills skiing after her friend told her about a program in the Kitchener-Waterloo area called Track 3 that teaches people with disabilities how to ski. “I checked out the program and I instantly fell in love with being on the hill and skiing.” But then one night when Emily’s guide couldn’t make it out due to an injury, a friend’s guide suggested snowboarding. “I thought sure, why not? I’ve got skiing pretty well mastered, how hard can snowboarding be?” And even though Emily found herself falling a lot, she liked the challenge and felt she needed to conquer it. So much so that she’s now set a goal of making it to the 2018 Paralympics. “I would like to compete in the 2018 Winter Paralympics as one of the first blind Para snowboarders. My category isn’t quite in the Paralympics yet, but it is in the development stage.”
Emily the Athlete
Emily’s road to the Paralympics has been teeming with different types of training, both on and off the hill. “I’m at the gym [with a personal trainer] three times per week, doing yoga twice per week, and I do a lot of running outside. I have my own running instructor who helps guide me around different areas of London like Springbank Park and Boler Mountain. In the summer time we do stand up paddleboarding once or twice per week and in the winter we’re at the hill at least three times per week.”
Even with the unseasonably warm winter we’ve been having this year, the drive in Emily to train and prepare has not slowed. “Because it has been a lot warmer, the snow has been different every time we’ve been there but we think of it as good training because you never really know what the snow conditions are going to be like.”
Along with the help of her guides, Emily has to rely heavily on her other senses to help lead her when she’s on her board. “I have to listen a lot. On the hill my guides and I use headsets so they can talk to me and I can talk to them. I can’t see anything in front of me so it’s up to my guides to tell me where to go and if they run me into something, well, they run me into something!”
Like any athlete training for the Paralympics, Emily has a huge support system around her to help her achieve her goal and keep her motivated. Emily’s team, comprised of guides, coaches, trainers, friends, and family members, has been affectionately named Team Starfish after her nickname. According to Emily, how she got this nickname is “…such a good story! When I was first starting to snowboard, my head guide always laughed when I fell because he said I was falling the exact same way every time. Then one time while we were snowboarding, he yelled: Starfish! You fall like a starfish. Every time you fall, your hands go out, your legs go out and it doesn’t matter which way you fall, you always end up in a starfish position. So he said, your nickname now is going to be Starfish.”
Having a team is essential for any athlete, but sometimes Emily can only rely on herself. Many times during training, she’s had to move out of her comfort zone in order to learn. “When I first started learning edging turns I got a lot of speed and I ended up doing cartwheels down the hill and I almost ran into one of the orange ski fences.”
Trust in her guides plays a very important role. “Trust is huge. In order for me to get down the hill, it’s all in my guides hands so I have to be able to trust them.” But trust doesn’t form instantly between Emily and her team. “For full trust, I have to work with my guide on average for six months. In the very beginning there’s a lot of making sure it’s consistent and a lot of working with that guide to let them know what I need them to do so we can work together as a team. There’s a lot of communication necessary.”
This is the case for Emily’s cross training as well. “Whether it’s on the hill, in the gym, or on the paddleboard, we definitely need to have a conversation and then we slowly work up to trusting each other. I always make sure I sit down and talk with my team members, guides, and trainers to let them know that I can’t see very well and what I need them to do for me.”
Cross Training with Balance Board Yoga and SUP Boarding
For Emily, training doesn’t end when the winter does. “A few years ago I was looking for a sport to practice in the summer that would allow me to continue working on similar muscles. I was going to the gym, but I needed something sort of similar to snowboarding. I originally looked into rowing, but unfortunately that didn’t work out due to lack of volunteers, so I actually found a video of stand up paddleboarding online and a quick Google search brought me to LondonSUP. I emailed Drew Climie, the owner of LondonSUP, and explained to him how I was training to compete in the Paralympics as a blind Para snowboarder and he was really excited so we started working together.”
In the spring, when it’s still too cold to be in the water, Emily and Drew (occasionally accompanied by David, Emily’s boyfriend, and Olivia, Emily’s service dog) practice Balance Board Yoga. This is where I got to meet Emily for the first time and photograph one of her classes. “Balance Board Yoga works on stability, which is important for a snowboarder. It also works on endurance which is important because we’re often on the hill for several hours training.”
In the image below, you can see that Emily has marked the front, back, and middle of her yoga matt with tape to help navigate where she is and prevent her from falling off the board.
In the summer, Emily has the opportunity to get out on the water with Drew on a stand up paddleboard. This is where you can really see Emily’s fearless nature because she doesn’t mind getting wet. “I just jump off the board into the water!” Emily has the name of every paddle technique memorized so that Drew can use descriptive communication to guide her. He explains where she is in the water and which paddle motion she needs to use in order to move effectively. Check out some of Emily and Drew’s SUP boarding cross-training on Emily’s YouTube channel, Team Starfish.
The road to the Paralympics sometimes has some speedbumps. “Para Alpine snowboarding is not in the Paralympics yet. It takes a long time for a category to develop, especially seeing as it’s fairly new to the Paralympics, so that’s a really big struggle right now.” As her category is being developed, Emily continues to train to reach her goal of making it to the 2018 Paralympics.
“Training is really expensive so a lot of the time I’ve had to pay out of my own pocket. We’ve done some fundraising, especially this past year, so that helped offset the training costs both on and off the hill.” This is where Emily has to rely heavily sponsorship to continue her training. For future sponsorship, she has some promising news. “At the end of the this last season, I got to sit down with the head of Snowboarders Ontario and they told me they’re looking for a few women for the Adaptive Para snowboarding Quest for Gold – Ontario Athlete Assistance Program. This is essentially money that would be sent to me every month to help pay for training and equipment, which will be very helpful once I get that funding.”
“I have local sponsors right now.” Purple Moose Sock Company, All ‘Bout Cheese, and Boler Mountain are currently helping Emily and her team reach their goals by financially backing part of her training, providing items for fundraisers, and paying for instructor’s lift tickets and Emily’s seasons pass.
But she could still use your support because, “every little bit helps.” So Emily needs you to “share her story with your friends and family, co-workers, neighbours, and acquaintances. If you can get my story out, the more people that know, the more support I can get. If you know of any sponsors, it doesn’t matter if they’re local, or if you know of a corporate sponsor that wants to sponsor an athlete, send them to me. I’m always looking for new sponsors.”
You can also follow her on social media to offer your support. Here are the links for you to follow, like, comment, and share:
YouTube Channel: Team Starfish
Promo Video: Team Starfish Promo Video
Go Fund Me: https://www.gofundme.com/teamstarfish2018
Quick Q & A
What is your favourite brand of snowboards/outdoor clothing?
Emily: Burton for snowboards and Columbia for clothing.
Where do you shop for your gear?
Emily: SportChek for snowboards and gear and either SportChek or the Columbia store here in London for clothing.
Where is your favourite place to snowboard and why?
Emily: My home hill is Boler Mountain here in London which is a nice place and it’s great for training. I also like the Collingwood area because it’s a bigger hill so I’m able to get more big hill experience because a lot of the races are at bigger hills. My dream is to get to Whistler and we’re hoping to get to bigger hills next year.
What songs are on your workout playlist?
Emily: Spider by Christina Aguilera, Roar by Katy Perry, Anything by Hedley. I have a lot of motivating songs and upbeat songs on my playlist.
What song pumps you up the most right now?
Emily: Eye of the Tiger.
If you weren’t a snowboarder, what would you be doing?
Emily: I am working towards becoming an educational assistant so probably working more towards that. I do have a job right now while I’m snowboarding, but if it wasn’t in my life at all, I’d be working towards becoming an educational assistant.
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