All Sean Halsted wants is competition, which might go without saying for a three-time Paralympian.
But Halsted, 47, has increasingly found himself in a tough spot. And not because he’s paralyzed from the waist down.
Instead, it’s because Halsted has found that in the world of Paralympic sports, you’re either competing against other elite athletes or you’re on your own.
As he ages, he worries what will happen when he’s no longer able to compete on the world stage.
“When you’re not the cream (as a nonadaptive athlete), there is a whole other level of competition you can go to,” Halstead said. “But for us, it’s the Paralympics or (nothing).
“I want to be able to compete.”
On Friday, Halsted flew to South Korea to prepare for the PyeongChang 2018 Paralympics, which start Thursday. He will compete in the biathlon and cross-country skiing events.
The Hayden, Idaho, resident, who trains on Mount Spokane, isn’t a medal contender. But as a senior member of the team, he mentors the younger, stronger athletes.
The U.S. Air Force veteran is quick to emphasize that he’s excited to be competing in another Paralympics. But because this is his third, he’s learned a few things about how the system does and doesn’t work.
Over the last 12 years, he’s sacrificed time and money to become a Parlympian. Nordic skiing, much less adaptive Nordic skiing, is not a high-profile sport. Sponsors aren’t knocking down the doors to fund Halsted’s training.
But even more than the lack of monetary support, Halsted is concerned by what he sees as a shallow talent pool and haphazard recruiting process.
The only reason Halsted got into adaptive Nordic skiing was because of a misunderstanding.
Halsted was born in Spokane and graduated from Mead High School and Washington State University, where he was an All-Pac-10 Conference rower. But in 1998, during an Air Force search-and-rescue training exercise, Halsted fell 40 feet from a helicopter and shattered a vertebra. He lost most use of his legs.
During the rehab process at the Seattle VA Medical Center, he mistakenly believed he had to attend a wheelchair sport clinic to be discharged. That was his first exposure to adaptive sports. Soon after, he was exposed to adaptive skiing and other winter sports.
The fact that he only learned about adaptive sports because he misunderstood what he needed to do bothers him.
Because there is no unified system for introducing injured veterans and others to adaptive sports, he worries many who could benefit from the activity are going without. Although there are plenty of supports, financially and otherwise, they aren’t streamlined and accessible.
“There are benefactors and they are doing back flips,” he said.
But he wonders how someone new to the sport would know where to look for the support and resources.
The lack of a streamlined system for introducing people to adaptive sports is the biggest advantage countries such as Russia have during the Paralympics, he said. Despite Russia’s problems with sanctioned doping, Halsted said the system by which the country recruits adaptive athletes is linear and efficient.
“Their biggest asset is their talent pool,” he said.
Often, Halsted said, recruiting athletes to be on the U.S. adaptive team is a challenge. Because of the expense, travel and potential injury, many athletes turn it down.
“A lot of our successful athletes are more than a successful athlete,” he said. “They are fundraisers and (metal) fabricators. They have to be able to think outside of the box to get them on snow.
“You also have to be able to motivate yourself with very little.”
Halsted said the problem goes beyond the Paralympics, and impacts the local adaptive skiing community.
Although he’s supportive and appreciative of fledgling efforts at Mount Spokane to make adaptive Nordic skiing more mainstream, he worries that the efforts are too disconnected.
A more streamlined and unified approach could get more people on the slopes skiing.
That would benefit him tremendously, giving him training partners and competitors. It would give him a competitive outlet outside of the Paralympics.
Competing against other adaptive skiers is something Halsted loves and something he wants to continue to do, even after his time on the world stage is over.
“All of a sudden, you’re not the guy in a chair,” he said. “You’re one of the guys in a chair. It’s awesome.”