Michael LeBlanc finishes near the bottom of most of his high school Nordic ski races because of a disability that makes it impossible for him to ski with poles.
The Fulton resident, his family and his coaches hope to change that in coming years by having race organizers account for his disability when timing him.
LeBlanc and his team are advocating for the use of an algorithm that would cut a skier’s time by a certain percentage, depending on his or her disability. They say such a “factoring” system, which is used at the Paralympic level to account for athletes’ disabilities, would even the playing field for skiers such as LeBlanc.
The coaches in LeBlanc’s high school conference, the Metro West, have agreed to use time factoring at their meets for the upcoming season. LeBlanc, his coaches and his family plan on petitioning the Minnesota State High School League to use factoring at its section and state meets.
“I think it’s just so important that he can finally feel like it’s the result he’s earned,” said Kate Hokanson, Nordic coach at Benilde-St. Margaret’s, the school with which LeBlanc competes.
“Nobody thinks that he’s not working hard enough to earn those results,” she added.
LeBlanc, 16, has a condition called upper limb difference. Specifically, LeBlanc’s arms are contracted with about 20 degrees of open and shut capacity, and he’s missing bones in his forearms, has no triceps and has one finger on one hand and one double-tipped finger on the other.
Despite the disability, LeBlanc has skied on the Benilde-St. Margaret’s Nordic team for the last three seasons, after first being exposed to the sport through Charlie Brown, his friend and classmate at Groves Academy. LeBlanc, now a sophomore at the school, said he didn’t know if he would like the sport at first but kept an open mind.
He added that he likes how you get to compete against yourself in Nordic skiing, noting that it’s physically and mentally grueling.
“How much effort you put in is equal to the amount of success you will get out,” he said.
LeBlanc earned Benilde-St. Margaret’s junior varsity Coach’s Award his first year and made the varsity team last year as a freshman. Mike Brown, Charlie Brown’s dad and a volunteer for the team, said some of the other kids were surprised by how fast of a skier LeBlanc was. He added that LeBlanc has the advantage of good core stability and balance.
Hokanson said she began calculating LeBlanc’s factored time last season to see the difference it would make. She said LeBlanc’s finishing near the bottom of most races hasn’t stopped him from doing his best.
“He never seemed bummed out or said it wasn’t worth it,” she said. “He still comes back every race, and he’s ready to do it.”
Factoring used internationally
Factoring is a system of classifying Paralympic athletes that allows them to compete in the same race, despite having different levels of ability. Athletes receive different time factors depending on their disability and how it impacts their participation in their given sport.
The system “ensures that winning is determined by skill, fitness, power, endurance, tactical ability and mental focus, the same factors that account for success in sport for able bodied athletes,” the World Para Nordic Skiing website says.
For example, a Nordic skier who uses two skis and no poles — such as LeBlanc — would have his or her time cut by 21 percent in a classic race and 11 percent in a freestyle race, per World Para Nordic Skiing. A Nordic skier with an impairment affecting an entire lower limb, as another example, would have his or her time cut by 8 percent in classic and 7 percent in freestyle.
BethAnn Chamberlain, U.S. Paralympic Nordic development coach, said the factoring system provides an opportunity for athletes with disabilities to compete in the same race.
Chamberlain is working with the LeBlancs on their proposal to the state high school league. She said they plan on asking the high school league to cut 3 percent from the times of Nordic skiers who have disabilities, in addition to implementing the international standards. That would help balance the playing field for athletes with disabilities, she said.
Chamberlain said she’s trying to collect as much feedback as she can from coaches across the state so the high school league understands where coaches stand on the proposal.
LeBlanc’s coaches and family have not yet submitted the proposal, but they plan to do so in the coming months. A high school league spokesman said in an email that the proposal would first go to the league’s activities advisory committee and then, if approved, to the league’s board of directors.
Hokanson, the Benilde-St. Margaret’s coach, said there wasn’t any pushback from the other Metro West coaches when she raised the idea of using factored timing in conference meets.
LeBlanc said adding factored timing to the meets would make it equal for him and other adapted skiers, so they can feel more a part of the team.
Use outside Minneapolis
Conversations around factored timing are also happening outside of Minneapolis.
Dave Bridges, Nordic coach at Mahtomedi High School, got his fellow Metro East Conference coaches to agree to factored timing this year because of a visually impaired skier on his team.
Bridges said his skier is completely blind in one eye and sees “maybe 10 percent of what you and I would see” out of the other. The skier has a guide ski in front of him during practices and races, helping him find the tracks on classic courses and stay alert of gradient changes.
“He’s a real hard worker,” Bridges said of the skier, adding that he finishes in the middle of the pack in his varsity races.
Bridges said the skier was certified by U.S. Paralympics last year and that his time factor will apply in about six to eight conference races this season. He said the skier wasn’t initially interested in the factor system because he didn’t want to get special treatment but that his dad convinced him that it’s OK to do.
Bridges estimated that only a couple of athletes would be affected if the high school league instituted timing factors. But he said it would open the door for people who want to try Nordic skiing and potentially other sports.
Chamberlain, the U.S. Paralympic coach, said the use of time factors is typically well-received and that it’s just a matter of educating people on why they are needed.
“It’s unique that Nordic skiing can be so well integrated for adapted athletes,” she said. “I think it’s a good way to provide a great opportunity for kids to get involved in a great sport that is lifelong.”