SNOWSHOE, W.Va. – As 28-year-old Mackinzie Dickman, who goes by “Kinzie,” blazes down a steep trail at Snowshoe Mountain Resort in Pocahontas County, West Virginia, it’s hard to tell that she’s had a tough run of it.
“I was slowly losing my ability to walk. It very much felt like I was walking in quicksand,” Dickman explained from the seat of her wheelchair.
Kinzie started skiing at Snowshoe before she was three, and became an accomplished skier early in life.
Always athletic, she was also a gymnast, until the pounding took its toll.
“She did gymnastics up until high school, her feet kind of took the beating and then she jumped into lacrosse,” explained Missy Houston, Kinzie’s mother.
As a lacrosse player, Kinzie had similar success.
“Same thing. She was a hard worker or became a star out there on the field,” Houston said.
But following tragedy, Kinzie has had to regain that love for agility and athleticism.
A car accident damaged her spine in September of 2017 and her condition would only worsen in the months ahead.
“And then in May of 2019, I was having some back pain and numbness down to my toes. … and we found … a cerebral spinal … cyst from my t-five to my t-12. And I became paralyzed by October of 2019,” Dickman said.
Life, for this once active woman, ground into slow motion. The damage to her spine - permanent.
“And as somebody who was a very coordinated and athletic person to lose that ability was very depressing and I got situational depression. And then to just wake up and then not have that ability to do the things that you grew up doing was very stressful and challenging,” she said.
It was hard for the family as well, as they sought solutions to Kinzie’s condition.
“We went through a lot. We went to a lot of different medical places. Didn’t have a lot of answers. We didn’t have a lot of guidance of where we would go. And we sorted just once we just accepted. This is what it was,” sighed Houston.
Then came adaptive skiing.
But the darkness of depression brightened when Kinzie discovered the Center for Adaptive sports at Snowshoe. The program, part of a partnership with Challenged Athletes of West Virginia, offers one-on-one lessons for people with a wide variety of disabilities.
Longing for the freedom she once found on the mountain, Kinzie enrolled in the program, and about three years ago, learned to use a monoski, a chair-like device with a single ski underneath. The rider, or skier straps in and points the ski downhill. With time and experience, many learn to carve turns and tackle difficult terrain.
“It’s a really great distraction from everything that engulfs you when your life changes 180 degrees,” Dickman said.
At first, she struggled – balance and confidence were elusive – but slowly, the athleticism from her youth bubbled back to the surface as she learned to go from the beginner slopes to intermediate and finally, the most difficult, black diamond or expert slopes.
“I watched her I think on week one, and it was hard. She wasn’t going very far. She was falling. And I really couldn’t watch much more,” her mother admitted.
But for Kinzie, the feeling of the wind in her face, and the response of the ski to just the right amount of pressure to initiate a turn were liberating and rejuvenating.
“It just brings joy to your heart. And it just allows you freedom, freedom to do whatever you want and to know that you’re not locked down and that you can do whatever you want,” she said.
Not only did Kinzie’s life brighten, but now she is forming a career around skiing, working as an instructor for others at the Center, and taking her skills to a whole new level.
In the terrain park, she does tricks that would scare most skiers, riding rails, and pipe tubes, and doing jumps. She recently completed a 40-foot gap jump.
And last year she became the first person on a mono ski to attempt Snowshoe’s difficult Cupp Run Challenge race. Returning to do it again this year.
Kinzie isn’t just fast. She’s approaching world-class.
She hopes to nab one of two spots for racers on the U.S. Paralympic team, having skied recently with the nation’s best at Breckenridge Colorado, where she’s planning to return in 2023.
In the meantime, she practices.
“When you’re on a mono ski and you go downhill fast, you let that binding and that ski take the carve. It gives you a sense of freedom like no other,” she said, grinning from ear to ear.
Her mother said Kinzie just can’t help it – even if it’s scary to watch her take such chances.
“It’s hard, but she has to be happy. She has to have joy in her life. And she can’t stop. It’s who she is. It’s in her blood,” she said.
And as for Kinzie, even if she doesn’t make that Paralympic team, skiing has given her something so valuable, it can’t be measured.
“And it really brought everything back for me. It gave me my soul. My soul since I was a small child at the age of two and a half, three years old … No, you just can’t take the person away from snow. I’m just meant to be on the mountain,” she said.