“Ski like a girl.” It’s the four-word motto that serves as both motivation and mantra for Paralympic alpine racer Allie Johnson, who’s making her debut for Team USA at the 2022 Winter Paralympics in Beijing.
“That means that I’m skiing really fast,” said Johnson, who also writes the words on her glove so that she literally has them at her fingertips, “that I’m overcoming so much injury and people thinking that girls can’t be competitive in sport. It’s just really one of my big mantras for whenever I’m doubting myself, I can look at my glove that says, ‘Ski like a girl,’ or look at my glove that says, ‘Actually, I can,’ and remind myself of how tough I really am.”
The words have been especially important to Johnson, who was born without a right forearm and will compete in four events in Beijing. She’s already completed the super-G, where she finished 14th, and the super combined (DNF), with the giant slalom and slalom to come.
Johnson’s hand-decorated gloves have become a signature trademark for the Chicago native, who began giving them as gifts to friends. She’s made personalized gloves marked with significant song lyrics for teammates and even decorated one for fellow U.S. para alpine athlete and mentor Danelle Umstead in honor of Umstead’s foundation, Sisters in Sports. Currently, Johnson is working on a glove for an Australian Paralympian that will match her speed suit – and she’s trading it for one of the Aussie’s pins.
“It really actually started with my friend – I sent my right glove to him, because I only need the left one,” she told On Her Turf. “So then it just kind of started to be a really cool thing that I get to do.”
As for the pin trading, the 27-year-old Johnson calls the time-honored Paralympic tradition “out of this world.”
“I never thought anything of the pin game,” she said. “And now it’s one of my favorite things to do.”
Just four years ago, the idea of being at the Paralympics – let alone pin trading – was a pipedream for Johnson, who got into ski racing through the seemingly nonchalant suggestion of a coworker.
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Not long after graduation from Colorado State, where she earned her degree in 2017 with a double major in human development/family studies and Spanish studies, Johnson was working at the National Sports Center for the Disabled with now coach Scott Olson. Although she had been skiing since she was 4 years old – and was working at NSCD as a therapeutic horseback riding instructor – it wasn’t until Olson encouraged her to try racing that she gave it a thought.
“[He] asked me, ‘Why not?’” Johnson told media in Beijing. “I had just graduated and did not have much direction. It was the best non-answer I’ve ever had.”
But her newfound passion for ski racing met the sport’s painful reality in Canada in February 2020, when she crashed during a training run for her first-ever downhill race and broke her left tibia and fibula. The injury, which Johnson calls “the hardest thing I’ve ever had to deal with,” required surgery, six days in the hospital and cut her season short, but it only served to crystalize her Paralympics dream.
“I had only been racing for about a year and a half, so it would have been really easy for me to just be like, ‘Okay, this isn’t a sport for me.’ I really didn’t go that direction’ though,” she recalled. “When I was in the hospital, I really got to realize how much I absolutely love this sport and I absolutely love what I do.”
Johnson admitted she does have anxiety about her injury, but she credits a healthy mix of therapy – physical and emotional – for helping her get back into the start gate. And while Johnson won’t be sporting her decorated gloves in Beijing (her competition poles require a special glove), she is wearing two items that remind her why she’s racing: a bracelet that says “JFS” – “just frickin’ ski” – and a bright pink helmet.
“Sometimes you get a little mental about your process,” she said. “It’s just skiing, and it’s supposed to be fun. And I know how to do it. It just reminds me to let my body do what it knows how to do.”
Johnson said she hopes to use her platform in Beijing as an example that both empowers and inspires kids watching from home.
“I think being here, and being able to show other disabled kids, hopefully, that are watching at home, ‘Okay, these tough women are doing these amazing, crazy sports, they’re hurling themselves down the side of a mountain at 60 miles an hour – if they can do that, so can I,’” she said. “Hopefully, that will inspire a new generation.”
On Her Turf editor Alex Azzi contributed to this report.