Lift one foot off the ground and stand on just one leg for 10 seconds. Feel the muscles in your foot working to keep you upright.
Now slip that standing foot into a ski boot. Clamp the boot to a ski and blast down a steep, snowy slope on one leg, as fast as you can, steering down a marked course, racing against the clock. Hard to imagine? Alex Frol can tell you exactly how it feels.
Editor's note: Winter brings out the best in some people. Plenty of skiers, snowboarders and snowmobile riders wait eagerly for the first snow on Mount McLoughlin to signal their favorite season. During the next few months, the Mail Tribune will talk with some of Southern Oregon's "winter people" about their favorite ways to enjoy the short, cold days between fall and spring. If you know someone who might make a good subject for these occasional stories, drop an email to Bill Kettler at firstname.lastname@example.org. Please include a few details explaining why that person would be interesting for readers, and a phone number to reach you.
"When I click into skiing mode, I focus on what I have to do at that moment," she says. "There's a beat in my head that tells me how fast I want to go. I feel it. It's like 'boom, boom, boom, boom.' "
Alex was born with congenital abnormalities that left her without a right leg and a compromised spine. Now in her junior year at Ashland High School, she has undergone multiple surgeries during her 17 years. She earns As and Bs in school, plays tenor and soprano saxophone, and has been studying Chinese for three years. She's also a member of the school ski team.
She started skiing when she was 9. Her brother had just started snowboarding, and she wanted to join the fun. Her parents had to remind her that she had just one leg.
"They were like, 'You kind of need two legs to do that, but you can try skiing,' " she recalls.
"Her father wasn't too keen on it," says her mother, Bonnie, "but once he started, we couldn't very well say no to her."
Mom's and Dad's only requirement was that Alex had to learn to get up by herself when she fell. They wanted her to be able to take care of herself on the mountain. She spent one whole winter on the bunny slope at Mount Ashland, learning how to balance on one ski, and figuring out how to get herself back upright when she went down. She remembers her instructors skiing on one leg to understand how to teach her.
"It took them a while," she recalls. "They were talking to each other a lot, trying to figure it out."
Skiing on two legs is ample challenge for most of us. Some never master the delicate dance of shifting weight from one leg to the other to turn the skis. One-legged skiers don't have the luxury of a second leg to fall back on when gravity threatens to drag them down. They have to develop a refined sense of balance and learn to shift pressure back and forth from their big toe to their little toe to make the ski turn. They use special poles with small outrigger skis that provide some additional stability, but they have to develop tremendous core strength and agility to compensate for the missing leg.
"She's an inspiration to the other skiers," says her coach, Gary King, who works with ski teams from several Rogue Valley high schools.
King says Alex especially enjoys the ski-on-one-leg drills he sometimes uses to help racers develop edge control and balance.
"She likes it when we do those," he says, "because everybody else can see what she's going through."
Alex's racing efforts caught the eye of Ray Watkins, who works with disabled skiers at the National Ability Center, a Utah-based nonprofit organization that develops recreation opportunities for people with disabilities. He invited her to ski with him for several days on Mount Hood last summer, and then encouraged her to come to Colorado last December to compete against other disabled skiers.
"She's a hard worker, very intelligent," Watkins says. "I had an inkling of that from her musical background."
Racing against other disabled women gave Alex a sense of possibility, says her mother, Bonnie Frol.
"Her eyes were opened up," Bonnie says. "It was an exciting opportunity for Alex to see how much further she could go in her sport."
Watkins fitted Alex with a racing boot and a high-performance racing ski, and she spent several days over the Christmas break in Utah learning to use the new gear. When she came back to Mount Ashland to race, she shaved 25 seconds off her previous best time.
Bonnie gives the Mount Ashland ski area props for helping her daughter climb the steep learning curve of a one-legged skier.
"They were instrumental in getting Alex started," she says. "They bent over backwards to accommodate her when she was getting started. They deserve a lot of credit for encouraging her when they could have just abandoned her."
Alex has been accepted as a member of the "emerging athletes" team of Disabled Sports USA, a nonprofit organization that selects athletes for the Paralympic Games. She hopes to race in the 2018 Games, in Pyeonchang, South Korea.
Watkins, for one, won't be surprised if she qualifies.
"I have no doubt she's going to achieve whatever goal she sets out to achieve," he says.
Bill Kettler is a freelance writer living in Rogue River. Reach him at email@example.com.