Paralyzed Marine veteran with a Team USA dream trains in Maine
By DEIRDRE FLEMING | Portland Press Herald, Maine | Published: January 5, 2018
NEW GLOUCESTER, Maine (Tribune News Service) — A half-hour after sunset, the other Nordic skiers at Pineland Farms had retreated inside. But even with a wind chill of 14 below zero, Eric Frazier was still out on the snow.
Frazier, a 34-year-old Marine Corps veteran, is paralyzed from the waist down. It takes nearly 20 minutes for him to remove the straps from his atrophied legs that allow him to use a sit-ski.
A North Carolina resident, Frazier came to Maine to train for two weeks over the holidays in a bid to qualify this weekend for the 2018 Paralympic Winter Games.
“This is what I wanted, even if that sounds crazy,” Frazier said as he sat in the bitter cold.
The VAST program was started five years ago by Kristina Sabasteanski, a retired Army sergeant and a certified occupational therapist. VAST has aided three other disabled athletes trying to make the Paralympics, but Frazier is the first to have an extended stay at Pineland Farms in his effort to make the U.S. team as a Nordic skier or biathlete.
Sabasteanski was a member of the U.S. biathlon team from 1995 to 2002 and competed in two Olympics, at Nagano, Japan, in 1998 and Salt Lake City in 2002. She was named the U.S. Army Athlete of the Year in 1998.
“It’s nice the knowledge I used 20 years ago can help someone,” Sabasteanski said of helping Frazier tweak his technique. “This is paying it forward.
“I know if you move your (ski) poles an inch closer, it can make all the difference. I watched his technique, the angle of how he was planting his poles, how he’s taking the turns.”
Frazier grew up in McKeesport, Pennsylvania, a Pittsburgh suburb riddled with crime. When he got into trouble with the law, he was placed in an all-boys group home at age 15. There he took up wrestling and earned a scholarship to Thaddeus Stevens College in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. But after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Frazier decided to join the Marine Corps.
He survived a tour of duty in Iraq and was paralyzed after he returned to the U.S., getting shot in the back in New Orleans in 2005.
“I had my 22nd birthday a month later in the hospital,” Frazier said.
‘GREAT CHANCE’ AT ONE OF EIGHT SLOTS
In the year ahead, Frazier again turned to sports and learned to use a handcycle. He pursued long-distance road cycling events, and later triathlons and wheelchair basketball.
Then Frazier took up Nordic skiing and tried out for the U.S. Paralympic Team. He missed making the Vancouver Games in 2010, but earned a spot on the U.S. team from 2011 to 2014.
In 2013, USA Paralympics called Frazier “one of the top hopefuls for the Sochi 2014 Paralympics Winter Games.” Then a crash into a tree during training left him with a torn rotator cuff and a broken collarbone.
At 34, this may be Frazier’s last shot to make the Paralympics. At his home in Maple Hill, North Carolina, he trains on a simulated sit-ski machine, but it doesn’t allow him to work on turns, which are especially difficult on icy terrain for someone in a sit-ski. Nor is there typically snow.
So he came to Maine – spending Christmas apart from his wife, Shenette – to work with Sabasteanski and James Upham of South Portland, a U.S. Paralympic coach, at Pineland Farms.
“He has a great chance,” Upham said of Frazier’s attempt to make the U.S. Team. “I expect he will make it.”
USA Paralympics has allocated three slots for women and eight slots for men in Nordic events for the 2018 Games, which will be in PyeongChang, South Korea, on March 3-9.
Frazier’s final opportunity to make the team will be this weekend in Bozeman, Montana, at the World Para Nordic Skiing NorAm and U.S. Paralympics Sit Ski Nationals. He’ll have three chances to make the team: in the biathlon sprint Friday, the cross country sprint Saturday and the cross country middle distance Sunday.
Frazier competed in a Nordic World Cup in December in Canmore, Alberta, but did not crack the top eight slots.
“Looking at it from a positive perspective, I got some on-snow time, I know what my weaknesses are, and I am here working on them,” Frazier said last week. “I do need to do well (in Bozeman).”
PEOPLE IN MAINE ARE ‘VERY WELCOMING’
Sabasteanski, who skied with Frazier on 11 days during his two weeks at Pineland, said he has the focus to compete at the highest level.
“I think he really has a good chance,” she said. “I think it just came down to the final layer of training. He needed to take turns on snow. He was taking closer turns before he left. His hand placement was better. Hopefully that part of his training will pay off.”
Frazier won’t talk about his chances. But he’s grown accustomed to adversity, and his motto has become to give every goal “300 percent.”
“I’m probably not expected to make it,” Frazier said. “When I got to Canmore, Canada, I hadn’t skied at altitude. I have to create my own magic.
“But I thrive off challenge. That’s why I grew up wrestling. That’s why I became a Marine.”
And if he qualifies for the U.S. Paralympics Team, he plans to return to Maine to train.
“There is something about the people here,” he said. “They’re very, very unique. They’re very welcoming. Everyone has been so kind, wishing me good luck. There are some of the nicest people here.”