Visually impaired Paralympian says slopes give her a sense of freedom
Catholic News Service photo
Caitlin Sarubbi, right, a 23-year-old Paralympic skier from Brooklyn, N.Y., who was born with Ablepharon macrostomia syndrome, a condition that causes vision impairment, poses with her sister Jamie, her guide. In 2010 a second-place finish in the 2010 Wo rld Cup "Super G" race cemented her spot on the U.S. team for the Winter Paralympics in Vancouver, British Columbia.
Catholic News Service
BROOKLYN, N.Y. — For Caitlin Sarubbi, "seeing" is certainly not "believing."
How could "seeing" be "believing" for her, since the 23-year-old was born with Ablepharon macrostomia syndrome, a condition that causes vision impairment?
Instead, Sarubbi doesn't need to "see" clearly to "believe." She's spent her whole life believing in her abilities, and it's led to an impressive pedigree as a Paralympic skier.
In 2010, a second-place finish in the 2010 World Cup "Super G" race cemented her spot on the U.S. team for the Winter Paralympics in Vancouver, British Columbia. She competed in five alpine skiing events. She finished with two sixth places and an eighth place.
Early in 2013, she decided to take a leave from studying at Harvard to train for the 2014 Winter Paralympics, taking place March 7-16 in Sochi, Russia. Unfortunately, during training she suffered a concussion and didn't make the U.S. team when it was finalized in February.
But whatever disappointment there may be in this Catholic athlete not making it to Sochi, Sarubbi's success on the slopes thus far is remarkable, especially for someone doctors said wouldn't live through the night when she was born.
Ablepharon macrostomia literally means "born without eyelids." The condition forced her to undergo more 70 reconstructive surgeries beginning at just 4 days old. There are only about 14 cases of this condition documented in the world.
The daughter of a New York firefighter, Sarubbi experienced a life-changing event with the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. After the attacks, Disability Sports U.S.A., an organization in Breckinridge, Colo., invited firemen with children with disabilities to Colorado for a week of skiing.
For the first time in her life, Sarubbi felt no limitations because of her condition. On the slopes, she experienced the feeling of freedom that allowed the sport to become her new passion.
Back home, she joined a local chapter of Disability Sports U.S.A. called the Adaptive Ski Foundation based at Windham Mountain in Upstate N.Y. The borough of Brooklyn isn't exactly known for its picturesque skiing mountains, so Windham became Sarubbi's primary training location.
Since she's classified as a visually impaired skier, Sarubbi requires the assistance of a guide who skis down the mountain in front of her. Her guide is her younger sister Jamie -- a student at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana -- and the two communicate constantly via headset about mountain pitches and changes in snow condition.
Between her academic course load in high school at Dominican Academy in Manhattan and training with the Adaptive Ski Foundation, Sarubbi had a rigorous schedule. But all her hard work paid off. In April 2008 she was accepted into Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass., and then she qualified for the U.S. Adaptive Ski Team.
After completing her first semester at Harvard in the fall of 2008, Sarubbi took a three-semester leave of absence to train full time for the 2010 Winter Paralympics in Vancouver.
Sarubbi had just turned 20 years old two weeks before the Paralympics -- making her the second youngest athlete on the entire U.S. team. She was the only U.S. Paralympian asked to carry the torch during the opening ceremony.
She returned to Harvard and completed five semesters, but took another leave from school to train for Sochi.
"I said to myself, 'This is as good a time as any to be able to put my real life on hold and try for one more time,'" Sarubbi told The Tablet, newspaper of the Brooklyn Diocese, where she and her family are lifelong members of Resurrection Parish in Gerritsen Beach.
She made the comments in an interview in late 2013 -- before her dream to go to Sochi came to an end.
But even then she seemed to take that possibility in stride.
"I'm a big believer in 'everything happens for a reason' and 'God only gives you what you can handle,'" Sarubbi said in that interview. "Not only before but even now through training, God has a plan for everyone. If he wants us to go (to Sochi), we'll go."
Sarubbi has certainly experienced her share of obstacles in her young life, but through it all, she's remained grounded in her Catholic faith. Her mother, Cathy, gave her daughter a cross necklace and rosary beads that Caitlin wears for every race.
Eventually, Sarubbi plans to finish her social and cognitive neuroscience degree at Harvard. She'd like to someday be a neurologist or psychiatrist, since she was inspired by the doctors who saved her life as a child.