Paralympic athlete in training incorporates athletics into college life

Molly Johanson

For sophomore MiKayla Briere, taking two weeks off of school in January to attend the International Paralympic Committee Nordic Skiing World Cup is just a step towards ambitious long-term athletic goals.

“I’ve gained a lot of desire to push myself harder athletically. We really could be looking at a 2014 Paralympic goal for me, so I think I have a lot of motivation and drive to push myself athletically and fitness-wise,” said Briere.

Briere, who has been in a wheelchair for four years due to a degenerative disease, has not let her disability stop her from competing in snow sports.

“There’s a very short time of learning how to do certain things in a wheelchair but you very quickly get past that and realize that there is so much available to do,” said Briere.

Briere just started Nordic skiing, a skill she learned at a training camp last Thanksgiving. She was able to attend the camp and get a specialized sit-down ski with the help of a grant from Whitman’s Outdoor Environmental Leadership Fund.

Grace Farnsworth Phillips Professor of Geology and Environmental Studies Bob Carson, who manages the grant, stated that Briere’s application clearly involved the outdoors, but the leadership element was more subtle.

“She is helping others, particularly at Whitman, to understand the needs of people with disabilities,” said Carson.

Shortly after the training camp, Briere competed at the U.S. Nationals for Nordic skiing in Rumford, Maine in the first week of January. She finished in the top three in those races, and was then invited to the World Cup competition in Cable, Wis., and Minneapolis, Minn. from Jan. 29 to Feb. 3.

According to Briere, while participating in Paralympic events she gets to experience an environment where the issue of whether or not things are  accessible  is already taken care of, as opposed to being at Whitman, where she she has had to be more creative and proactive in making situations  accessible.    

“It’s less of a noticeable factor that you’re in a wheelchair when you’re surrounded by people in wheelchairs. I think there’s a different level of conversation and openness that you can have with them, because of the shared experience you have on chairs,” she said.

Briere’s professors were able to accommodate her absence by putting lectures, videos and homework assignments online.

Credit: Nico Farrel

Briere further noted that while she is committed to school, the work that comes with her athletic goals becomes somewhat of a part-time job for her. The Paralympic coaches email workout plans to her every two weeks, detailing 15 hour per week workout schedules. Fitting this into a typical Whitman workload seems difficult, but Briere has found ways to work around this issue.

“My priorities are a little bit different than they have been in the past. I now incorporate the social aspect of college into working out . . . Getting your heart rate up by going to play tennis with friends becomes less of a work out and more of a friendship experience,” she said.

Briere has also facilitated new experiences for her friends. When skiing in Yellowstone with Briere, sophomore Skye Pauly got to try out the sit-ski.

“The sit-ski was great!   It took a lot more balance than I expected, and gave skiing a whole different perspective,” said Pauly in an email.

Briere has always placed a high priority on participating in athletic activities. At Whitman, she has participated in a Scramble, Outdoor Program trips and climbing classes.   Briere, who is on her way to graduating with a degree in geology, also sees her degree at Whitman contributing to the value she places on athletics.

“I’m ultimately getting a geology degree because I like to be outside so much. I see sports being an inclusive part of my future,” she said.

Briere is currently gaining shooting experience so that she can compete in the U.S. Biathalon nationals in Yellowstone over spring break.

“I’m really looking forward to making the U.S. team, so I feel like it [will be] socially acceptable to run around with an American flag on my back,” she said. +