Though she’s only 29, Lauren Woolstencroft is a year into her first retirement. Like most retirees, she’s in a transition phase, trying to figure out what, exactly, she wants to do next.
She talks about continuing her work as an electrical engineer. She also talks about coaching young athletes. Whatever she decides, she’ll always be recognized as one of Canada’s greatest Paralympic athletes.
Woolstencroft retired from competitive skiing after winning five gold medals at the 2010 Winter Paralympics in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. She won golds for her performance in the giant slalom, slalom, super-G, downhill skiing and super combined races. “I suspected I would retire after Vancouver, but I didn’t want to worry about that until after the games,” she says. “I really couldn’t have bettered my performance. I knew I wasn’t going to top that.”
Woolstencroft was born without legs below the knee and without an arm below her left elbow. She grew up in a very active family. Her parents continually encouraged their kids to get involved in after-school activities and sports, and when she was 4, her parents put her on skis for the first time.
“They went to the ski school and said, ‘Here’s our daughter. We want her to ski,’ ” Woolstencroft says. “We were fortunate that one of the instructors there had just got back from a course on teaching individuals with disabilities to ski, which was really lucky. We headed off on the chairlift, and that was it.”
Woolstencroft enjoyed skiing but was more interested in horseback riding, which she did competitively until she was 14. She joined the Alberta Para-Alpine Ski Team after a friend, who was on the team, suggested she give it a try. “When I started competing it was a totally different experience,” Woolstencroft says. “I basically had to drop everything else.”
Training at night and on weekends, Woolstencroft made Canada’s national team before graduating high school and set her sights on the 2002 Paralympic Games. She also started working on an electrical engineering degree from the University of Victoria in British Columbia. She was able to manage her training schedule and school by taking classes in the summer and skipping winter semesters.
“I didn’t really have a lot of role models in sport,” Woolstencroft says. “I don’t mean that negatively, but I’m not really that kind of person. I did look up to my teammates, and my parents set a really good framework for me.”
Woolstencroft did her best to manage school and training, often turning in assignments while on the road. “It [training and school] was just what I was doing, so it wasn’t a big deal,” she says. “I didn’t want just one thing to focus on. When you’re intensely competing, it’s good to focus on other things.”
Things like bright, shiny gold medals. Woolstencroft won two golds and a bronze at the Salt Lake City games in 2002. She was only 20.
“I had zero expectations for the games. I had no idea what it was going to be like, and I wanted to do it with eyes wide open. It was definitely more than I expected,” she says. “I put a lot of pressure on myself, but I didn’t have a lot of external pressure on me, which was great because I knew at the end of the day if I didn’t do well, it was all about the experience.”
Woolstencroft speaks of her accomplishments like afterthoughts, like it’s somewhat normal for a person to win eight gold medals. When talking about them, her training, her accomplishments, she frequently says, “It’s just something I did.”
Perhaps that’s how she’s been able to balance the intense schedule she’s been keeping since high school; she views things as routine rather than spectacular or out of the ordinary. “There are all kinds of people out there doing all kinds of things, and it’s a mental attitude of overcoming different things that’s worked for me,” she says. “If you’re positive, it’s very easy to overcome whatever it is.”
Woolstencroft says the most difficult thing about her sporting career was staying motivated, but even that was fleeting: “To keep motivated over 12 years, you have to keep reminding yourself why you’re doing it. Most of the time it was no big deal, but if training was going horribly or the conditions were bad and I didn’t want to do it, I would say, ‘It’s a good day to be skiing. You could be sitting at a desk somewhere.’ It’s about reminding yourself of the ultimate goal.”
A year before the 2006 Paralympic Games in Torino, Italy, Woolstencroft graduated with a degree in electrical engineering. She won a gold and a silver in Torino, and then, despite continuing to train for the 2010 Vancouver games, she did what every normal college graduate does and got a job.
During the next five years, Woolstencroft worked 40 hours a week as an engineer for BC Hydro in Vancouver. “It was busy and quite overwhelming at times, but I was fortunate because they let me leave for weeks on end,” she says.
In 2010, Woolstencroft impressed her employer and her city by becoming the first Canadian to win five gold medals during a single winter Paralympic Games. “People went pretty crazy because it was at home,” she says. “I haven’t had a lot of time to think about it, but now it’s definitely quieting down. The media is kind of focusing on [the 2012 games in] London, and I think the next few years will be challenging figuring out what I want to do.”
But it’s a challenge she’s interested in exploring, and whatever she chooses to do, it’s likely that she’ll excel. And, when she looks back on it in a few years, she’ll value the experience above all else.