For Special Olympics athlete Michelle Canazaro, her first time skiing on snow was in 2015 at the Special Olympics Southeast Winter Games in Boone, North Carolina.
"I was thinking, 'What is a Floridian doing skiing?'" says Canazaro, 28. "I'm like, I don't think I'll ever be able to do this."
A resident of Fort Lauderdale, Florida, Canazaro has participated in numerous sports through Special Olympics for the last 20 years. Now, she'll be a member of a three-person ski team representing Florida's Broward County Special Olympics -- the largest chapter in the state -- at the Special Olympics World Winter Games in Austria from March 14-25. The trip will be Canazaro's first time outside of the U.S., and one of her few chances to ski on actual snow.
If a Floridian ski team sounds strange, well, Canazaro admits, it is. "People see us practicing on the beach, and they're like, 'Are you crazy? You're skiing on the sand when there's no snow!'" Canazaro says. "And we're just like, 'Yeah, why not, we're doing it for Special Olympics, and we only get to ski [on snow] three days out of a whole year, and we're practicing for it.' If they think we're nuts, who cares?"
Linda Mills, director of Broward County Special Olympics, says that when the ski program was first introduced 17 years ago, the athletes had no skis; instead, they wore Velcro sandals, which they strapped on to two-by-four pieces of plywood. Three years ago, local outfitter Peter Glenn Ski and Sports began donating used skis and boots to the team.
Practice takes place on a small stretch of beach in John U. Lloyd Beach State Park. The location was chosen, volunteer assistant coach Norris Matthew says, because of the 15-foot sand hill connecting the park dunes and the sandy beach -- the team's "ski slope."
To begin practice, the athletes put on their skis and boots -- "no help from our parents," Canazaro adds. The group, which on a sunny Saturday morning in February totals nine athletes, stands in a circle, stretching and warming up. Next, they grab golf balls, one in each hand. They squeeze the balls, mimicking how they might grab poles on the ski slopes, while practicing their balance. Once they've finished, they move on to falls.
"Fall to the left!" Mills calls out, as the skiers, now standing in a line, fall to the sand. After standing back up, they practice falling to the other side. A few athletes are hesitant, but Canazaro embraces the fall.
"[Practicing falling] really helps, because in the snow, even though it's more slippery, it's also colder," Canazaro says. "But if we fall down, we're able to get up and go back to skiing, and not have to be like, 'Can someone help me?'"
After their falls, the group, led by a volunteer coach, ski-walks in a figure-eight pattern through the sand. They scoot in unison, alternating before switching to circular paths.
Six years ago, Jim Cottrell of French Swiss Ski College in North Carolina visited the team and designed their practice sessions to better prepare them for actual snow skiing. Each move has a specific purpose, including the post-beach workout parking lot course, where coaches set up flags and the athletes either inline skate or utilize a scooter to slalom around the flags, copying the motion they'll follow on the slopes in the giant slalom competition.
Back on the sand, the group moves toward the top of a small hill. Taking turns, each skier assumes a parallel-ski crouch position with arms and hands stretched out front, parallel to the ground. Then they ski the sand. Or, as Canazaro's World Winter Games teammate Fernando Nunez says, "I ski the beach."
"Bend your knees, Michelle!" Matthew calls out as Canazaro skis smoothly down the hill.
Each athlete takes a dozen or so turns; each time, after reaching the bottom, they walk sideways back up the small hill, again practicing skills they'll need on snow.
"The sand is definitely heavier than the snow," Canazaro says. "The sand, you can't turn, so you have to pick up your feet and pick up the skis -- you can slide a little bit, but not a lot. On the snow, it's so much easier. You're like, 'It's just like the sand, but lighter!' I love skiing in the snow; I love the cold. When I'm skiing on snow, I'm nice and relaxed."
At the Special Olympics Southeast Winter Games in January, Canazaro won a gold medal after skiing down the course in 24 seconds, the fastest time of a three-athlete competition group. She also tried her first black diamond (advanced) course. "I was like, 'What!'" Canazaro says. "It was super-steep. It was fun, though."
Nunez and Canazaro's other World Games teammate, Kerri Lynn Leonardo, are black diamond skiers. Leonardo, who's been skiing with Special Olympics for 16 years, says she loves the feeling as she moves down the slopes.
"Skiing feels free -- I can do whatever when I'm skiing," Leonardo says.
When Canazaro skis, she sings to herself. One of her favorites is Katy Perry's "Rise."
"When I ski, I feel more confident, free, and I sing songs in my head," Canazaro says. "That's how I'm able to concentrate, and that's how I earn my medals. I like that it's an extreme sport, and I like going fast. The first year, I didn't like the fact that I was going way too fast. I didn't know how to do pizza [the team's term for braking, when a skier turns the ski tips inward to stop forward motion]. But now that I know how to do it, I enjoy it."
In only her third season of skiing, Canazaro has also competed in swimming, softball, basketball, soccer, volleyball, bowling, paddle boarding and skiing with Special Olympics. She plans to try golf and horseback riding next. She estimates that she has 45 to 50 gold medals, 30 to 35 silver and three bronze. "Because I'm like, I ain't getting no bronze!" she says. "I'm getting first or second!"
Canazaro earned her administrative associate's certificate from Atlantic Technical College and works full time as a mail clerk at Universal Property & Casualty Insurance -- also her mother's employer. She is also an artist and is part of Artists with Autism; her artwork has been showcased through local events. She loves to paint, draw, sing and dance, the latter two of which, she says, she does only at home, in private. But singing in her head on the slopes is, she says, what gives her the confidence to ski well. "And that's what got me the gold medal!" Canazaro adds, laughing.
Canazaro has a constant, infectious joy. She is a determined competitor who also takes joy in meeting other athletes and forging friendships with Special Olympians around the country - and soon, around the world.
"I really enjoy being in Special Olympics," Canazaro says. "I tell people about it all the time. My coach asked my mom, 'Is she always like this?' Because I'm always happy and smiling. I did have some rough times, but the past is the past, like my mom says, and you gotta move on with it and make your life more happy and more confident. And sports definitely brings me joy."