The Hasidic Israeli Alpine Skier Making History on One Leg – and in a Skirt

Alpine skier Sheina Vaspi, an above-the-knee amputee, talks to Haaretz about facing her fears and the challenge of combining an athletic career with Chabad Hasidism

Ido Rakovsky
Ido Rakovsky
Paralympic skier Sheina Vaspi.
Paralympic skier Sheina Vaspi.Credit: Israel Paralympic Committee
Ido Rakovsky
Ido Rakovsky

Sheina Vaspi sees herself as an ordinary 20-year-old who is enjoying life. But her life, particularly her athletic achievement, is far from routine. Last Friday, she became Israel’s first athlete to compete in the Winter Paralympic Games, when she skied – on one leg – down the Olympic slopes (she ended up on 15th place).

Vaspi was three years old when she lost her left leg in a traffic accident. “I don’t remember life with two legs,” she tells Haaretz, speaking from the Paralympic Village in Beijing before her big event. “It’s all I know and I’m happy with what I have.”

She grew up in a Chabad Hasidic family in Yesud Hama’alah, a small community in northern Israel’s Hula Valley. “I had an amazing childhood,” she said. “More or less normal.” After the accident in which Vaspi was injured, her family suffered another tragedy. When she was 7 her 18-month-old sister died. “But we’re still five girls, even though she’s not here.”

Growing up in the Upper Galilee, one might think she engaged in winter sports from an early age. “I can see the snow [on Mount Hermon, in the Golan Heights] from my house, but I never knew what skiing was,” she says, adding that she learned about the sport from a relative who volunteers with Erez, a nonprofit that was established to help disabled veterans to ski. “I was the organization’s first girl,” as she puts it.

“I connected with the idea and really loved the sport – the speed,” she says about her first time on the slopes, at 15. “I really enjoyed it and caught on relatively quickly. It really wasn’t that long ago. I really feel new at it, and I’m opening up to that world.” Other children with disabilities soon followed. “It gives them so much and contributes to their faith in themselves and their self-confidence. It’s amazing to observe.”

Vaspi stresses that she would never have made it to Beijing without Erez, and is hopeful that she won’t remain the only Israeli to compete in the Winter Paralympics.

Paralympic potential

Paralympic skier Sheina Vaspi.Credit: Israel Paralympic Committee

Eyal Yarimi, the director of Erez, saw the potential in the teen from Yesud Hama’ala and, along with the Israel Sports Association for the Disabled, identified her as a candidate for the 2022 Paralympics.

“I had just completed 12th grade and didn’t yet have plans” for the future, Vaspi recalls. “It suited me very well at the time and I needed direction. Closing my eyes and thinking this is what I was going to do every day – getting up in the morning, taking my ski, going up the slope and enjoying myself, becoming more professional and better at what I love. I really connected with the idea and each day, I connected with it more and more.” She acknowledges, however, that she didn’t entirely understand what she was getting herself into: “The moment I understood, I was even happier about my decision.”

One cannot help but connect with Vaspi. Her charm overcomes even the limitations of a Zoom call. During it, the unrelenting question is “How in hell do you ski on one leg?” Her response has two parts. First, she explains, it very much depends upon the teacher. The Erez volunteers are highly skilled at teaching the technique, she says. Second, “You have to have determination and the will to do it. Of course it presumably needs to be imprinted in your body, so that it comes to you naturally.”

It only takes four days in a row on the slopes, she says, “for you to do it independently, without the volunteers. How do you do it? You take the ski and just glide down.” She explains that she removes the prosthesis from her left leg and skis only on her right, using her arms to balance. “They guide me right and left.”

And you’re not afraid?

“You’re not afraid of the danger. You just do what feels good to you, what feels fun – and the danger isn’t there. If you’re afraid while skiing, it holds you back and slows you down.”

A visit from fear

But Vaspi admits that fear once paid her a visit. It happened at the world championships in Lillehammer in Norway in January, when she encountered conditions that were totally different from what she was used to. “The entire slope was ice, to an extent that it really scared me,” she recalls. “It was the first time I was afraid to go on the route.” She says she was afraid not of injury but of failure, that she would give up and not compete. “But I think greatness means accepting the fear and not letting it control you. Every day you need to do something you fear and overcome it.”

Paralympic skier Sheina Vaspi.Credit: Israel Paralympic Committee

Vaspi says she had never considered being an athlete or competing in the Paraympics, but the opportunity presented itself because Israel and every other participating country is given a slot for an athlete who meets the criteria. A month before the Games, she qualified based on her performance in competitions. “I deserve to be here due to my work and what I have done over the past two years,” she says.

Prior to the Paralympic Games, Vaspi spent a long time away from home, training in Colorado with a group from the U.S. National Sport Center for the Disabled. At first, she says, she was “without a language,” and she communicated with the people around her using a translation app. But she turned out to be as quick a study with English as she had been with skiing. “When you don’t have anyone to speak Hebrew with, you have to learn the language,” she says. “My friends in the group understand me, after living together for a long time. I have very good friends there even though I didn’t think I’d be able to make friends in a different language, from different worlds.”

The world in which Vaspi was raised is in fact very different, but despite the distance and the differences, setting in which she now has found herself, she has maintained her lifestyle, including keeping kosher and observing Shabbat. “I think that’s what’s beautiful about Chabad, that they don’t separate the two worlds – the spiritual and the physical – Torah and the ‘outside’ world,” she says. “I feel that I have been fortunate to come from a Chabad family that has permitted me to do this, but there are challenges, of course – I still need to obey the rules, which means keeping kosher and skiing in a skirt [due to considerations of modesty], enabling me to combine religion and sports. At first it wasn’t something to take for granted.”

‘Like a miracle’

In the run-up to Beijing, a complication arose, but as those who know Vaspi have learned, she’s never met an obstacle she can’t overcome. “They told me there was no way the Paralympic Committee would let me compete in a skirt,” she says, explaining that the people at Erez suggested that she take a week to think it over and decide whether to ski in pants or forgo the Games in Beijing. She says her parents didn’t try to influence her decision, but Vaspi decided that she would only compete in a skirt and “in what I believe,” as she put it. After pressure and persuasion, the committee relented. “When I gave my answer, I knew God would be with me on this,” she says, “because it’s a kind of mission of mine and His together – conveying this message, that they can and even must be combined.” Vaspi says that she was over the moon with the committee’s decision. “I felt like it was a miracle. Now it already feels natural and everything. No one looks at it as strange that everyone here is in pants and I’m in a skirt, but I try to tell myself it’s a miracle that I won’t forget.”

The “miracle” will happen Friday. “It’s important for me that I leave the track and feel satisfied with my performance – for myself – because I know I still have so much to do and to learn,” she says about her goals in Beijing. “Two years isn’t enough to reach the level where I really want to be. There are people here who have been training for so many years, and I look at them and say: ‘That’s where I want to go.’ So I’m taking everything that happens here as a learning experience, in order to reach the next Games better-prepared.”

Vaspi is in Beijing with Inbal Pezaro, a former Paralympic athlete who was selected to head the Israeli delegation. “She is going in the right direction,” Pezaro says. “She’s very modest [but] she’s aiming far. She copes. When things bring her down, she recovers quickly. She has a huge number of qualities that can be very good for an athlete.” Pezaro went so far as to acknowledge that despite her own extensive experience, she has learned from Vaspi. “She’s full of joy, she’s really social and she introduced me to this Chabad world that is thousands of light-years from me,” Pezaro said. “Chabad sees the positive in everything. It’s not a cliché and it’s really thrilling.” That may also be the word that best describes Vaspi.

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