Athletics & Recreation / Magazine Feature / People

DU grad student conquers the mountain

Nick Catanzarite thought his dreams of competitive skiing were over. The 17-year-old from Indiana was spending his junior and senior years of high school in Winter Park, Colo., as part of an intensive program for young ski racers when—in January of 1995—he fell.

“I just crashed,” the current DU grad student says. “I got a little late on a gate. It wasn’t a particularly bad fall.”

But it was bad enough to knock him unconscious. When he woke, he tried to get up and couldn’t. He had fractured two vertebrae in his back and was paralyzed from the chest down. With his plans to ski in college over, Catanzarite chose to study philosophy at Michigan State University.

He hadn’t even been injured a year when his parents decided to return to Winter Park for their annual winter ski vacation. Catanzarite was going to ski.

“I didn’t want to,” he says. “I didn’t think that mono-skiing or sit-skiing really looked like that much fun, but they kind of made me … The first time was very humbling. I was better at skiing than anything and all of a sudden I’ve got two people around me all the time, helping me get on the lift, picking me up when I fall. It was really hard.”

But he came back the next year and the year after that, and continued to improve. After finishing his philosophy degree, he decided to move back to Winter Park and give competitive sit-skiing a try. When he wasn’t on the mountain, he led philosophy discussions at the local library. Within two years, he qualified for the 2002 Paralympics in Salt Lake City. By the end of that year, he was on the U.S. Disabled Alpine Ski Team and would spend the next six years traveling to compete in World Cup events.

“I got to ski on five continents and develop relationships with disabled athletes—people I have a lot in common with—all over the world,” he says. In 2006, he competed in the Torino Paralympics and finished fourth—by .008 seconds—in the Super-G sit-ski event.

Back in Colorado, he decided it was time to return to school. He became interested in the environmental law program at the Sturm College of Law and the international development program in the Josef Korbel School of International Studies. That’s when his friend, mentor and DU alumnus Jerry Groswold (JD ’54, MBA ’55), told him about the Willy Schaeffler Scholarship Fund.

Groswold was the CEO of Winter Park Resort when Nick had his accident and had stayed in touch with him ever since. Long before that, Groswold knew Willy Schaeffler.  Schaeffler organized the first amputee ski program and decided to move it from Arapahoe Basin Ski Area to Winter Park. The program would ultimately become the National Sports Center for the Disabled.

Willy Schaeffler, in addition to coaching the DU Pioneers ski team to 13 NCAA national championships and serving as alpine director for the 1972 U.S. Olympic ski team, created the amputee program after visiting the Army’s Fitzsimmons Medical Center and witnessing the effects of the Vietnam War on returned soldiers. Schaeffler, a native of Germany, had narrowly escaped execution by the Nazi party during World War II before coming to the U.S.

Years later, when Willy Schaeffler was dying in a nursing home in 1986, his son Jimmy Schaeffler presented him with the idea of creating a memorial scholarship that would benefit disabled scholar-athletes.

“He was always pretty humble, so he was less concerned about the boost to his ego than he was the details of getting it started and making it work,” Jimmy Schaeffler says. “He was real helpful in getting a list together of people we could ask for donations.”

One of those people—who the younger Schaeffler says has been the fund’s most charitable donor—was Diane Disney Miller, Walt Disney’s daughter.

Willy Schaeffler and Walt Disney met at the 1960 Olympics in Squaw Valley and became friends. Over the years, Disney enlisted Willy’s help as he developed plans for a ski resort. Miller called Willy Schaeffler an “amazing specimen” who believed in conditioning despite having shrapnel near his heart from World War II. She remembers his compassion for people with disabilities, and how he wanted everyone to enjoy life to the fullest.

“He was fun, inspirational, witty,” Miller recalls. “To my whole family, he was, along with my dad, one of the giants of our life. I think it’s very important to keep the memory of people like Willy alive.”

Along with Groswold and Jimmy Schaeffler, Otto Tschudi joined the fund’s committee. Tschudi (BSBA ’75), a current DU trustee who skied for Schaeffler at DU, says he was just a Norwegian mountain boy when Willy Schaeffler approached him after a ski race in Austria in 1969 and invited him to attend DU. More than a coach, Willy was a leader figure Tschudi looked up to throughout his life.

That committee decided two years ago to make Catanzarite the fifth recipient of the Willy Schaeffler Scholarship, which provides a full ride for four years, as well as a fifth year abroad.

“He was a great athlete, a good scholar and was disabled, and he seemed to be a real good person,” Tschudi says of Catanzarite. “He really wanted to do this. He hit a soft spot in me that made me say ‘this sounds like the right guy.’”

Catanzarite now is pursuing dual degrees in law and international studies.

“I think this is going to allow me to tie all my experiences together and carve out a little space for myself and pursue a career that is going to be meaningful to me,” Catanzarite says.

Attending DU also has helped Catanzarite take a more professional approach with his skiing. In 2009, he took second place in the giant slalom at the U.S. Alpine National Championships in Winter Park—the same slopes that paralyzed him. He’s planning to compete in the Paralympics in 2010 and return to Colorado with a medal.

“Between the opportunity to ski race and the scholarship to come here, it makes the disability feel insignificant,” Catanzarite says. “Don’t get me wrong, I still curse it sometimes, but I never would have had those opportunities if I were walking around. So in that sense it’s very much a blessing in disguise if you can deal with the everyday stuff.”

Donors can contribute to the Willy Schaeffler Annual Scholarship Fund and the Willy Schaeffler Endowed Scholarship Fund. A donation to The Willy Schaeffler Annual Fund significantly supplements the endowment fund, and is particularly helpful for the current funding of scholarship recipients. Call 800-448-3238 for more information.

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