Maddie Watts, 19, from Vancouver, B.C., was scared to try adaptive skiing.
It had nothing to do with the fear of falling or getting hurt though.
She loved skiing so much – for as long as she could remember – that she was terrified she would hate this version of it.
Growing up near Whistler B.C., home of some of the world’s greatest ski hills, her best childhood memories were made on the slopes, surrounded by friends and family.
So, when she received her diagnosis of facet joint syndrome – a form of arthritis aggressively attacking her spine – at the age of 17, she immediately grieved the loss of her favourite activity. Her condition quickly worsened, and she must now use a wheelchair to get around.
“There were some dark days. Not being able to ski anymore broke my heart and I started to feel left out at times when my family went on the slopes. My relationship with Whistler, formerly a magical place, became complex and conflicted.”
So, when her dad recommended adaptive skiing, it felt like a last-resort option. She knew if she didn’t enjoy it, she could no longer enjoy skiing in any way.
A new love
To her great surprise, however, she fell in love with it.
“I was doing turns on the first day and the staff there were shocked. It came so naturally! Soon enough, I was back in the high mountains, in the fresh powder snow. I was hooked!”
For Maddie, adaptive skiing is also about being independent and having something that is uniquely hers.
At the time of the diagnosis, she was starting grade 12. Usually, it is a time in a teen’s life where eyes are set on adulthood, moving out and spreading their wings. But Maddie had to rely on others, more than ever, and lost the ability to do the things she loved most.
Pain was always on my mind. Some friendships became struggles because of it, and every plan I previously made had to change. It was a hard, new reality to accept.”
As Maddie embraced her newfound love for adaptive skiing, she quickly caught the attention of the Canadian Paralympic Committee. They have extended her an invitation to train, learn and meet other athletes in the program.
“I didn’t expect that! I want to improve and see if I can have a chance at competing on such a stage.”
Growing pains to glowing gains
The young philosophy student has come a long way. After some tough times, she now feels in a good place to pursue higher education while skiing as much as she can.
“The hardest part was the unknown. Getting the right diagnosis took time and there were moments where I felt helpless. As soon as we knew what was going on, I read so much about it. I consulted the Arthritis Society’s website and found help in support groups. Confiding in someone that is going through a similar experience really helped.”
With a few years to prepare, improve and grow her love for adaptive skiing, she now embraces the dream of joining the 2026 Canadian Paralympic Team. Until then, she will continue to look up to Katie Combaluzier, one of Canada’s best Para alpine skiers.
The next time you read about Maddie Watts, there might be a picture of a smiling young woman with a gleaming medal around her neck.