Frédérique Turgeon was 10 months old when she went skiing for the first time. Her father strapped her into a carrier on his back.
“I heard I laughed all the way down the hill,” Turgeon says.
She is 19 and a Paralympic skier enjoying the greatest year of her life. At the same time, it has been her most challenging emotionally.
Her father died from a heart attack in the early hours of Dec. 18. As they waited for paramedics to arrive at their home in the Montreal suburbs, Turgeon and her mother and sister, three years older, tried to save him.
“Sometimes what happens is so massive that it takes someone right away,” she says.
Her voice shakes as she fights back tears.
On Dec. 17, Ron Turgeon picked Frédérique up at the airport. She had just competed at a World Cup alpine event in St. Moritz, Switzerland.
Ron, who had a home-renovating business, made a shepherd’s pie and the family celebrated Frédérique’s return home with a quiet dinner. Hours later, Ron went into cardiac distress. He was 60, and in seemingly excellent health.
“He was my best friend,” Turgeon says. “I would call him every day. He was literally the definition of what a father should be.”
She was born without a fibula in her right leg, which is about half the size of her left. When her mother saw her, she feared the family’s weekends on the slopes were over.
Sonia Paradis had no way of knowing how athletic her youngest daughter would be. She is currently atop the World Cup overall standings, with the final two races taking place in Italy next week.
Turgeon wears a prosthesis when she walks and, until 2013, wore one when she skied.
That year, she broke her right leg in a crash. She struggled mightily in her return.
Coaches then suggested she try skiing on one leg. It takes great strength, and was onerous at first. Now Turgeon is marvellous at it. She wears a ski only on her left foot, and used two adaptive poles to push and guide her.
She was three years old when she began to ski. She was different from other children, not because of her disability, but because of her determination.
On days off from school, she would ski from 8 a.m. until 4 p.m. At times, she also joined her family on all-night excursions to a ski hill.
At 11, she joined her sister Raphaelle as a member of ski club near their home in Candiac, Que. A coach noticed her one day where it was so bitterly cold that everyone else fled indoors.
“You are developing more skills today than your friends who are warming up inside will in years,” he told her.
That same year, she was invited to participate in the Para Canada Games. She finished fourth in the slalom. At the next Canada Games four years later, she won a gold medal. In 2017, she was invited to join Canada’s development team, and qualified for the 2018 Paralympic Games. She finished ninth in the giant slalom in Pyeongchang.
“I went into it with the mentality of just living the experience, enjoying the vibe and the crowd,” she says. “Next time, my approach will be different.”
Her father was her biggest fan. When she raced abroad, he would get up in the middle of the night in Canada and watch her on television. They talked about how they would celebrate when she reached a podium on the World Cup circuit for the first time.
Less than a month after he died, Turgeon won gold medals in Zagreb on back-to-back days in the women’s standing slalom at the opening event on the Paralympic World Cup circuit. The following week, she won two silver medals and a bronze at the world championships in Kranjska Gora, Slovenia, and Sella Nevea, Italy.
This week, she has already won three silver medals in La Molina, Spain – two in the giant slalom and one on Friday in the slalom. She competes in the slalom again on Saturday.
“It has been a huge year for me,” she says. “I still can’t believe what is happening.”
She is more physically fit than ever from working out in a gym five days a week for a minimum of two hours each day.
Her appetite has also been whetted by the taste of success.
“I am probably the most competitive person on Earth,” Turgeon says. “I am totally crazy. I even try to beat my teammates down the stairs at out hotel.”
She is stronger mentally, too. She has had to be.
“I was very driven before this year, but now I am more focused,” she says. “I like to think it is because I have an opportunity to do this for my dad.
“We had a strong connection through skiing.”
She meditates for half an hour before each race. At the last minute, as she stands at the top of the hill, she thinks about her father.
“I pray before every run I take,” she says. “I say, ‘Let’s go, Dad,' and then I take off. Everything I do now, I am doing in his memory.”
She can fly.