From Mikaela Shiffrin to Chris Klug, Colorado is home to some of the best Olympians in the world. The Centennial State is also home to Breckenridge resident Lauren Weibert, Deaflympics gold medalist in Slopestyle Snowboarding.
Like most elite international sporting competitions, the Deaflympics (previously known as World Games for the Deaf, and International Games for the Deaf) are pay to play- at least if you’re American.
Unlike other countries, the United States government does not provide federal support to the USA Deaf Sports Federation, or any other International Olympics Committee (IOC) -sanctioned event or program. Instead, athletes are left to their own devices to secure private funding.
“I think that most people don’t realize fundraising involves a lot of work,” said the 31-year-old freestyle snowboarder.
This December, the 19th Winter Deaflympics will be held in Valtellina- Valchiavenna, Italy. For ten days, she hopes to be there to defend her Slopestyle Snowboarding gold medal and upgrade her silver medal to a gold medal in Boardercross. Both medals were earned in the 2015 Deaflympics Winter Games held in Khanty-Mansiysk, Russia.
2015 was the first time she had ever competed in Boardercross, used a park board, and still earned a spot on the podium. However, athletic talent alone is not enough to compete on the elite international stage known as the Deaflympics. In addition to training long hours, qualifying athletes receive elite coaching and must also be skilled at crafting their own brand and outreach.
For her, multitasking is part of the job.
“The first time I fundraised for the Russia Deaflympics, I was recovering from knee surgery and I was a full-time college student.,” Weibert continued.
“It was challenging to find time to go do my physical therapy, homework, go to classes, go snowboarding, and try to fundraise on top of all that, but it was a challenge that I embraced. Please help send me to Italy this winter to defend my medals!” she requested.
Weibert must raise $3800 by November 1 if she wants to compete in Italy. The funding would cover all expenses including domestic and international airfare, room and board, meals, and competition expenses. According to her Mighty Cause crowdsourcing page, as of July 26, she has raised $2165.
Incredibly, the Paralympics do not have a category for deaf athletes.
Athletes with disabilities are categorized into three main groups: sports for persons with intellectual disabilities, sports for persons with physical disabilities, and sports for the deaf.
Since the first games in Paris in 1924, the Deaflympics distinguishes itself from other IOC-sanctioned events (the Olympics, the Paralympics, and the Special Olympics) in that Deaflympians cannot be guided with the use of sound, such as a whistle.
This year’s 19th Winter Deaflympics program includes six sports: Alpine Skiing, Chess, Cross Country Skiing, Curling, Ice Hockey, and Snowboarding and is expected to draw more than 2,500 athletes from approximately 30 countries.
Despite the fact that the Deaf Olympics are the second-oldest international multi-sport event in the world, inequities exist. Not only in overall recognition, but in payout.
In a demonstration of equity, U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Committee USOPC (formerly known as USOC until recently) announced that Paralympians will receive the same payout as Olympians.
To illustrate, in the past gold medal Olympians would earn a staggering $37,500, while a Paralympian gold medalists would be awarded only $7,500. Now, both will earn the same amount ($37,500) for a gold medal win.
How much prize money did Weibert earn for her Slopestyle Snowboarding win in the 2015 Deaflympics?
Compared to other IOC-sanctioned Olympics, the lack of recognition is a constant source of frustration for Weibert. She would like to see the Deaflympics receive the same attention as the Olympics or Paralympics.
“Being deaf does not somehow make us less,” she said emphatically. “Deaflympians continue to receive nothing. I would love to see the Deaflympics get the same kind of awareness and recognition some day.”
“It’s great that we have this super-accessible platform for deaf athletes, but I still don’t feel we are equal to the American Olympians and Paralympians. We receive zero support from the USOPC, despite IOC recognizing the Deaflympics. Now I want to go to the Deaflympics again to show other deaf people that anything is possible when they focus on their goals,” Weibert said.
Despite her flatlander (she moved to Breckenridge from St. Louis in 2008) origins, thanks to frequent trips to Hidden Valley Ski Resort she was already a skilled snowboarder by the time she arrived in Colorado.
Weibert got into competitive snowboarding as a way to step out of her comfort zone and learn new tricks. In her very first competition, she was surprised when she earned a spot on the podium.
The more she participated in free competitions, the more her confidence soared.
During that era, there was one competition in particular that is memorable to her: the 2010 Nikita Chickita all-girls slopestyle competition in Utah. Out of a field of 60, she placed fourth overall and was the only deaf athlete to participate.
Despite her success, it was frustrating to compete in events that did not take the needs of deaf athletes into consideration.
“Competitions are generally inaccessible to the deaf. I never know what is happening from registration all the way to awards,” said Weibert.
“The inaccessibility has led me to step away from competitions to a degree and that’s why I am really looking forward to the Deaflympics. They are inclusive and it’s less stressful knowing exactly what is happening,” she added.
During the winter, Weibert snowboards as much as possible. In the summer months, she trains four days a week. On a typical day, Weibert will start out with a 1-3 mile warm up run with her dog. She will follow that up with a big hike, or mountain bike ride.
With five months remaining to prepare, and four months to raise funds to attend the Deaflympics, the clock is ticking for Weibert.
“My amazing community helped make it happen and I am confident we can do it again this time around. The deadline to raise the $3,800 is November 1. Please help send me to Italy to defend my medals!” she finished.
Donations can be made at her Mighty Cause web site or via check. Checks can be made out to USDSSA (United States Deaf Ski and Snowboard Association), memo “Deaflympics/Lauren Weibert” and mailed to USDSSA, Attn: USDSSA Treasurer Rochester, NY 14617.