St. Olaf ski racer in Salt Lake Paralympics
Kelly Underkofler has only one hand, but it doesn’t slow her down.
When the eighth international Paralympic Winter Games were held during March in Salt Lake City, Utah, only one Minnesota competitor was there — St. Paul native Kelly Underkofler, 17. The first-year student at St. Olaf College raced in four cross-country skiing events, all with the use of one hand.
Underkofler qualified for the U.S. cross-country ski team, which consists of three women and seven men, by competing in Germany this past January. She won a bronze medal in the 10K skate-style ski race, with a time of just over 43 minutes, and also competed in the 15K classic race. She competed at the Para-lympics in the 5K, 10K and 15K races, and completed a 2.5K leg of a relay.
Like the Olympics, the Paralympics are designed for elite athletes. But there’s a difference – these competitors all have some form of physical disability. In cross-country ski racing, for example, the athletes are classified according to whether they perform sitting or standing or are visually impaired. In Underkofler’s class of standing athletes, participants must have a disability that allows them to use only one ski pole.
Other sports featured in the nine-day event included Alpine skiing, Nordic skiing, ice sledge, hockey and the biathlon.
Underkofler first heard of the Paralympics at age 13 when she was being fitted for a prosthetic device at Shriners Hos-pital in St. Paul. (She never liked wearing any kind of prosthesis and doesn’t use one to this day. “I’d already been doing stuff on my own with one hand,” she explains.) One of the technicians at Shriners had been a Paralympian himself, and her parents remembered the games when they noticed their daughter’s success as a racer in high school.
Underkofler grew up in the Highland Park neighborhood of St. Paul in an active family of four kids. She was born with no left hand and a shortened forearm that ends about two inches below her elbow. Still, says Kelly, “I don’t consider myself disabled.” Her parents simply never allowed it.
As the second oldest child and the only girl in the family, Underkofler took up cross-country skiing at age four. Her father, Kevin, a financial manager who runs his own investments firm, the Labyrinth Group, was a cross-country ski racer himself as a young man. “He taught me to tie my own shoes when I was five and to ride a normal bike,” Kelly recalls. He also urged her to take up competitive ski racing when she was a freshman at Highland Park High School.
“It was my dad’s idea to go beyond citizen races,” she says. “He pushed me, in the best sense of the word. But he’s backed off. It’s my thing now.”
Kelly’s mother, a Luther Seminary student, is currently completing her internship year at Mount Olive Lutheran Church in south Minneapolis.
Asked about the challenges of growing up with one hand, Underkofler shrugs. She rarely considers the question. “It was hard to learn to jump rope when I was little,” she says. “Little things were frustrating, like learning to put my hair in a ponytail.”
Officially founded in 1976 (though the idea dates back to 1948, when games were organized in England for disabled World War II veterans), the Paralympic Games have always been held in the same year as the Olympics. Since the Seoul Summer Games (1988) and the Albertville Winter Games (1992), they have also taken place at the same venue as the Olympics.