The COVID outbreak was and for some still is an isolating experience, and even more so for Norway’s Para alpine skier Hanne Vadseth who was thrust into the pandemic while recovering from her career’s worst injury and struggling to find a new guide.
As Norway went into lockdown, the vision impaired skier turned to art to re-establish a connection with the outside world. By posting her song covers, paintings and workouts, Vadseth motivated herself to keep going through the most challenging times and tackled her own fears in the process.
Life on hold
The 2019-20 season was not what Vadseth had expected. A member of the Norwegian team since 2015, the skier was in her best shape ever ahead of the season but then in September she broke her leg while training in Austria.
It was by far the worst injury of her career and the first time she ever broke bones.
“I didn’t feel the pain at first. I just felt that there’s something that’s not right,” Vadseth said. “It was like an out of body experience. I heard someone screaming, but didn’t know it was me.”
Vadseth was taken to the hospital by helicopter and spent four hours on the operating table. When she woke up, she did not know what city she was in. She spent the next six days in the hospital in Austria and another week in hospital once she returned to Oslo.
And the challenges did not end there.
“My mom drove to Oslo to pick me up and bring me home because crutches and visual impairment is not the greatest combo. It’s difficult, so I needed some help,” Vadseth said. “Still, I have great statistics here. I’ve only broken one leg in 33 years!”
Vadseth stayed with her mother for four and a half months until she could handle the crutches and bend her knee again, but just as things started to look up, there came another blow.
Two weeks after Vadseth returned to Oslo and resumed training with the national team, Norway went into lockdown to curb the coronavirus pandemic. Gyms closed until June. Vadseth herself contracted the virus in March.
Cut off from her team, the skier turned to social media to stay on track with her recovery goals.
“I used Instagram to document my progress so it was easier for me to do the things I needed to do,” Vadseth said. “It was this motivational thing - I have to do this because I’m going to film it and show people. It was a totally mental thing to do, but it worked.”
In addition to her recovery posts, Vadseth used social media as an outlet for her creativity, posting covers of Billie Eilish and Joni Mitchell songs, artwork and photos of her journal.
“For me it was very important to focus on things that were not sports,” she said. “I have always been happy to draw and paint, so I picked that up again, and I also love to sing and play the guitar, so I did a lot of that, and also started taking singing lessons and progressing in something else to occupy myself and to keep myself going.”
Vadseth credits this creative streak to her family. Many of her relatives are skilled artists and her mother is a singer.
But even with this hereditary creativity, Vadseth said that some things she posted on Instagram were not easy to share. One such obstacle was her insecurity about having a deeper, alto voice.
“I never liked to sing because I was afraid that people would judge me for it. It wasn’t until I started doing the singing lessons that I learned to love my voice because it’s unique and it should be something that you’re proud of, not something you should hide. But I’m still working on that. That’s why I’m sharing this stuff on Instagram,” Vadseth said.
When I’m ninety-four
When not skiing, Vadseth works part-time as a sports and mobility coach at a rehabilitation centre for vision impaired people. She teaches them how to use a cane and navigate the city, among other things.
Some of her clients have had visual impairments all their lives, while others lost their vision recently. Many arrive at the centre angry or bitter and struggle to accept their condition. This is where Vadseth comes in, setting an example.
“It’s important to have someone working in a centre like that who is educated, has work, does sports and all these other normal hobbies because many people who lose their vision think that their life is over,” she said.
“I talked to an 18-year-old girl who said, ‘I can’t do anything because I’ve never seen anyone who is blind do anything, so that’s how my life is going to be now’. When she came to us, she said, ‘Wow, what is this?’ People are biking and running and swimming and kayaking and climbing, doing all these things that she didn’t think she could do any more, so it’s very cool to see people find their way and take their lives back.”
While skiing is once again possible in Norway, Vadseth is not able to get back to racing just yet. She recently removed the screws from her leg and it will take a few weeks before she can ski again. She also split up with her guide ahead of the new year, marking the third time she lost a guide in 2020.
But as life is put back on hold, Vadseth need not go far for a reminder that patience also has its rewards.
One of the people who managed to scale a climbing wall at her rehabilitation centre recently was 94 years old, prompting the young skier to set a new, longer-term goal: “I want to be like that when I’m 94!”