Flying down a ski hill at over 100 km per hour might sound intimidating to some, but for Blake Cassels & Graydon LLP tax lawyer Ian Balfour, it was a way of life.
Born without the lower portion of his right forearm, he didn’t let it stop him from reaching his goals as a world class athlete. Having competed in three Paralympic Games, holding the title of world champion for disabled ski racing for four years among numerous other wins, Balfour is now sharing his experiences as a mentor for young athletes preparing themselves for the 2010 Games in Vancouver.
Balfour grew up in Pincher Creek, Alta., about 15 minutes from the local ski hill. Skiing runs in the family; both his parents are avid skiers. They had him on the slopes by the age of four, and eventually he got into racing. “They threw me into the ski-racing program — I think initially so that they could get off and ski by themselves,” he jokes.
Most of the time he raced with able-bodied competitors, saying his disability wasn’t much of an issue, apart from slowing him out of the gate. “Only having one arm, the only place that it really affects me is my start, because you explode out of the gate. And so, out of the start I was always a bit slower. But I like to think that I could catch up sometimes.”
During an able-bodied race, a coach from the provincial team of the Canadian Association for Disabled Skiing spotted Balfour. “I might have been 12 at that point,” he says. He was quickly recruited for the team. While the program was fairly “bare bones,” he says it gave him an in to the national squad. It didn’t take him long to reach that goal; Balfour was named to the national disabled team by the age of 14.
“I was a pretty junior member,” he says, but that didn’t hold him back. In 1994, he was put on the team for the Lillehammer, Norway Paralympic Winter Games. He placed 16th in the slalom race, but says he thought of it more as a learning experience. “It was overwhelming, and I think that was part of the reason that I didn’t do so well in those games,” he says. “I was also pretty young. I was so young, in fact, that the equipment that they had — you get the team uniforms — my uniforms were all way too big for me. The smallest size they had barely fit me; my downhill suit was flapping behind me.”
After Lillehammer, he realized there were a lot more opportunities out there for disabled skiers as the sport started to mature. “They started running an official World Cup series, which consisted of 20 or 30 races throughout the world,” he says, which had him travelling to Europe and the United States. It kept him at the top of his game, and in 1998 he competed at the Paralympic Winter Games in Nagano, Japan. He was 18 and his best result was a seventh-place finish in a slalom race. “’98 in Nagano was another sort of learning and growing experience for me.”
Balfour enrolled at the University of Lethbridge, but scheduled courses in the summer so he could train in the winter. His dedication paid off. In 2000, he competed in the disabled alpine skiing world championships in Anzère, Switzerland, winning the downhill event. He held the world champion title for the next four years. He says that win was a turning point, when the mental element of the sport became clearer, and his trips to the podium more frequent. The next year, Balfour won the downhill race at the disabled skiing World Cup in Kimberley, B.C.
Two days later, Balfour had his first serious crash. He tore two ligaments in his knee, and chipped the bone in his femur. “From winning my first World Cup race to basically being laid up on the couch for a few months — it was a big change,” says Balfour. Determined to compete in the 2002 Paralympics, less than a year away, he pulled out of university and focused on rehabilitation.
He managed to prepare himself, and made it to Salt Lake City, but met disaster during a training run. Approaching a jump, he pressed down a split second too early, launching him higher into the air than he had anticipated. “I managed to land, but I landed awkwardly, and I just felt a stinging sensation in my previously injured knee,” he says. He finished the race, crashing into the finish area. Afterwards, doctors told him had re-torn his anterior cruciate ligament.
“We had some frank conversations with the doctors about whether or not I should ski again,” says Balfour. He made the decision to take the year off, focus on healing, and getting back to university. He took a few more courses, wrote the LSAT, and before completing his undergraduate degree, was offered early acceptance to the Faculty of Law at the University of British Columbia.
With two knee injuries behind him, and an acceptance letter to law school, it was time for Balfour to make a serious decision. Rather than risk further injury, he chose law school. After completing his degree in 2006, he moved to Calgary, where he articled with Blakes. “Blakes had a great reputation, so it was an easy match, for me at least, to come here.”
The law didn’t mean the end of Balfour’s involvement with world class skiing. In 2005, a year before the Games in Torino, Italy, he was approached by Team Visa, which sponsors a number of Olympic and Paralympic athletes. Along with Kurt Browning and Nathalie Lambert, Balfour acted as a mentor for Visa’s athletes. “It was a good experience, it was a good way to keep connected with the sport, and given my colourful career as an athlete . . . I really felt that I could help the current athletes with most of the problems that they would have. . . .” Balfour is again mentoring along with Browning and Lambert for the upcoming 2010 Games.
The associate says his skiing career has “instilled that sense of hard work and the ability to really focus on a task, and to juggle a few different things at once, whether that’s a bunch of different files or work and life in general.” There’s plenty to balance these days. He and wife Diana celebrated the birth of their first son, David, last June. Balfour expects his son will take up the sport as well. “It’s been such an important part of my life, we’ll definitely get him out on the slopes.”