Is Mono-Skiing Too Dangerous for Paralympics?

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A challenging course and less-than-ideal conditions made for some scary alpine runs during the Sochi Olympics. Now, as paralympians find themselves navigating the same courses in even worse conditions, many athletes are watching the remainder of the Games from hospital beds.

"Hey friends, sorry it's taken me a while to update...I am just fine. I was knocked unconscious and had to have stitches in my chin but feel incredibly blessed to have left the mountain today in the shape I am in. My teammate Stephani Victor-Kuonen is in the room next to me and she is also going to be okay. She's got a pretty banged up face... Praying for a quick recovery for both of us. Thank you all for the love, prayers and all of the support... It means more than you know," skier Alana Nichols tweeted Monday.

Even before Saturday, when 11 of the 27 athletes crashed on their mono-skis, mono-skiers (formerly known as sit-skiers) were known for being particularly extreme. After the crashes, some wonder whether the sport is too dangerous for the Paralympics.

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Statistics show that athletes in the 2010 Winter Paralympics were injured at a higher rate than athletes in the able-bodied Olympics (23.8 percent of the 505 athletes at the 2010 Winter Paralympics were injured; sledge hockey had the most injuries at 34 percent. In both the Summer and Winter Olympics, able-bodied athletes had an injury rate of 11 percent.

Still, it's the conditions in Sochi -- poor visibility combined with a challenging course and sugary snow conditions -- that have some experts most concerned.

"To me, it looked like some of the athletes were skiing to survive, not to race," said Gerry Herman, Director of Kennedy Krieger Institute's Physically Challenged Sports Program in Baltimore. "It didn't look like they were throwing their whole bodies into it -- it looked like they just wanted to make it to the bottom."

Valerie Wallace, a mono-skier and board member of the Cannonsburg Challenged Ski Association in Michigan, said that while monoskiing is no more dangerous than upright, able-bodied skiing, she would not feel safe on Sochi's alpine course -- "not after seeing all the able-bodied get hurt."

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"The snow is softer now, and as it becomes like sugar, the more work it is especially for a mono-skier or bi-skier to keep in form," Wallace said. "And just like any skier, if you get caught in somebody's rut you’re screwed. Just like stand-up skier you can catch a gate with a ski or an arm."

The weight of the skiers' equipment (27-35 pounds) means the athletes hurtle down the mountain faster than able-bodied skiers, at up to 60-70 miles per hour. Even so, "the risks of engaging in snow sports appear no greater than those of the general population, and there is some evidence that skiing can positively influence self-esteem, physical self-worth, standing balance, and gross motor function among individuals with a disability," said a 2010 study in the International Journal of Rehabilitation Research.

One question, however, may linger:

"How did a temperate region get Winter Olympics?" Herman said.

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