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With 64 surgeries, two years at Harvard, and a Paralympic Games under her belt, visually impaired alpine skier and premed student Caitlin Sarubbi never expected that being asked to dissect a cat in class would be what finally made her question her abilities.
Sarubbi was born with Ablepharon Macrostomia Syndrome, a rare genetic disorder that rendered her legally blind and subjected her to repeated reconstructive surgeries as a child. The oldest of five, Sarubbi grew up doing everything her siblings did.
But when she came face-to-face with the cat in a class, Sarubbi realized she could not do the dissection. For the first time in her life, she wondered if her vision was an obstacle that she could not overcome.
“I had this vision from birth, which I think makes it a little easier because I don’t know what 20-20 is,” Sarubbi explained. “I forget that I’m visually impaired. I’m not going to sit there and wallow because it is what it is.”
Sarubbi is a social and cognitive neuroscience concentrator who attributes her interest in being a doctor to the advances in medicine that saved her life as a child. She currently ranks in the top 10 among visually impaired skiers worldwide in all five alpine events.
At the end of the fall semester, she will take a year and a half off to train and compete in the 2014 Paralympic Games in Sochi, Russia, before coming back to Harvard to finish her undergraduate degree and pursue medical school.
“I don’t want to wake up 10 years down the road and regret not trying to be a doctor,” Sarubbi said. “I would rather try it now and see if it’s possible.”
PULLING THE TRIGGER
After Sarubbi met with an academic counselor earlier this month, she knew that it was time to make a decision and that it was not going to be an easy one.
“I had been going back and forth on Sochi for the last two and a half years,” Sarubbi said. “I just needed to pull the trigger. I’m at the point right now where I have the luxury of being able to be a skier for a year and a half and travel, but this is the last time. I can’t do it when I have a family and a career.”
Sarubbi has not raced since 2010, when she took an academic leave and froze her points to maintain her ranking on the world stage. Her sister Jamie, a sophomore at Notre Dame who is taking a year off from school to train and compete with Sarubbi as her guide, will join her at the end of the spring semester. Until then, Sarubbi will train and race with Jimmy Lawrence, a ski instructor who worked with the Sarubbi family at Windham Mountain Ski Resort in Windham, N.Y.
“I’m just going to race like I normally would, and she is going to follow me,” Lawrence said. “I just know I have to lay off the gates so that they don’t hit her when I go by them.”
The road to Sochi 2014 will not be easy. Sarubbi is coming into the beginning of the season with no training and a brand new guide, and she is working on a significantly lower budget than last time around, using an online profile on RallyMe.com to raise money. Still, Sarubbi and her family say they want her story to be heard.
“If I had heard a story like Caitlin’s when she was born 22 years ago, my thoughts wouldn’t have been so heavy at the beginning,” said Cathy Sarubbi, who said she wholeheartedly supports her daughter’s decision to go to the Paralympics. “She’s in her Caitlin mode now. Full speed ahead and nothing stopping her.”
IF I CAN DO THIS, I CAN DO ANYTHING
Sarubbi had never been on skis until 2001, and her involvement in community sports was the extent of her athletic career. But everything changed after Sept. 11, 2001, when her father John—a NYC firefighter—was contacted by several organizations who wanted to honor the first responders.
Among the organizations that reached out to the family was Disabled Sports USA, a foundation committed to helping people with disabilities live a fulfilled life through athletics with the motto, “If I can do this, I can do anything.”
The organization invited the Sarubbi family to a weeklong, all-expenses-paid ski trip to Breckinridge, Colo. The family fell in love with the organization, which has a local chapter called the Adaptive Sports Foundation in Windham, N.Y.
“When Caitlin started skiing at ASF, we started to volunteer there,” Cathy said. “The whole family gives back to the organization because now Caitlin’s story gets to be told.”
With the help of ASF, Sarubbi learned to ski with a guide who she follows down the mountain and communicates with through helmet walkie-talkies. Starting as a junior in high school, she took on a full racing schedule that she tried to balance with her coursework and college applications.
BEST WEEK EVER
In the spring of 2008, Sarubbi’s hard work paid off in what she emphatically calls the best week of her life. She had applied to Harvard not expecting to get in, so that the acceptance letter came as a shock, she said.
“She opened up the wrapping paper and saw the envelope, and the tears just start coming down her face,” Cathy said. “It was like all that hard work just came together. I’ll never forget that day in my life.”
Sarubbi had only received the first of what happened to be a week full of good news. Just two days later, she received another envelope, this one from the USA Paralympic Team, inviting her to compete in Vancouver.
“That year I was five-time national champ and overall national champ, so I knew that I had a good shot at making the team,” Sarubbi said. “The Harvard letter was way more of a shock and surprise, and a gift. To have them both pay off at the same time was pretty awesome.”
Although she had balanced racing and academics in high school, Sarubbi knew it was not sustainable in college. She met with Dean of Freshmen Thomas A. Dingman ’67, who approved Sarubbi’s plan to attend Harvard for one semester and take the next year and a half off to compete in the Paralympics.
In Sarubbi’s first Paralympic games, she raced in all five alpine events, bringing home two sixth-place finishes and one eighth-place mark. Sarubbi—who is required to ski with a guide—said she struggled to find the right person to work with.
“When she went to the first Paralympics, other athletes were husband and wife or lifelong friends,” Jamie said. “You have to have that trust and that communication. Her past two guides didn’t see her as a person, just more as an athlete.”
MY SISTER’S KEEPER
Jamie—the second oldest of the five Sarubbi siblings—is trained as an adaptive ski instructor and started working with Sarubbi last year. She said that the decision to take a leave of absence from college was not a hard one because she grew up so close to her older sister.
“Instead of her watching over me and protecting me, I felt that a lot of times I was kind of watching over her and protecting her,” Jamie said. “Going to the park, I would hold her hand and make sure she didn’t trip on anything.”
As the sisters grew older—and Sarubbi continued to excel—Jamie began to see her sister differently, a subject that she addresses in a book she wrote, titled ‘Through My Sister’s Eyes.’
“It went from me protecting her and having her follow me, to me seeing everything she accomplished and being in awe of her,” Jamie said. “Despite all the adversity she’s faced, she’s managed to be this amazing athlete and go to this amazing school, and she’s doing it all by herself.”
Jamie—a volunteer instructor at Windham—learned to guide and attended a camp with her sister last year. While the two will need more training to work out the technical details, it was clear that the connection was instant.
“[Sarubbi] said that when we first started out last year, we were at a level of being in sync without even trying,” Jamie said. “She said she never even had that after training for months with her old guide.”
Indeed, skiing with her sister is going to be a radically different experience than her time in Vancouver. The two will eat, sleep, and train together in the months leading up to the Paralympic Games. While both Jamie and Sarubbi agree that they are opposites—Sarubbi is outgoing and Jamie is the quiet one—the two are looking forward to spending time together.
“If we fight, it’s no big deal because we’re sisters, and we fight all the time,” Sarubbi said, laughing. “It will give us a chance to hang out and travel and have fun.”
Although Cathy jokes that she just wants her two daughters to graduate and get jobs, she said she is happy that Sarubbi will have a guide who is there for more than just the competition.
“Jamie doesn’t care about a medal or the podium,” Cathy said. “Jamie just loves Caitlin, and she loves to ski. She’s doing it for the right reasons.”
A FAMILY AFFAIR
If you ask Sarubbi about her experience in Vancouver, she will not talk about where she finished or how she got along with her guide. Rather, the first thing she wants the world to know is that over the course of 12 days of competition, she had over 30 family members come out in support.
“Those were the most nerve-wracking races of my career,” Sarubbi remembered. “Just to have them there, I was able to separate myself from being an athlete for a few hours a day. It kept me balanced.”
The Sarubbi family has supported her since birth, taking her to doctor after doctor and surgery after surgery. They remortgaged the house to go to Vancouver and rented a house at the bottom of the mountain where Sarubbi would be racing.
“It was never daunting to have to take care of her,” Cathy said. “She has accomplished so much; it’s daunting for my other kids. They have to work so hard to keep up with Caitlin, and they know how blessed they are, and we take nothing for granted.”
While Sarubbi was deciding whether to train for Sochi, her New York home was hit by Hurricane Sandy, and she flew home to help with the cleanup. Cathy attributes the family’s strength to her daughter’s remarkable survival.
“We lost a lot of stuff, but we’ll start over,” Cathy said. “We’re so thankful for what we have been given because we didn’t know if Caitlin was going to live the night, and 22 years later she’s pretty much a rock star.”
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