New Hall of Fame ski racer hopes to lift local programs

Steve Gerace

Recently inducted into the National Disabled Ski Hall of Fame, Mount Shasta resident Brian Santos says the six gold Paralympics medals he won in the 1990s with guide Ray Watkins are old news.

The first visually impaired racer to be honored by the Disabled Ski Hall of Fame, Santos is better known these days as a junior ski team coach who uses a monocular to track his students.

During an interview earlier this week, Santos called his Hall of Fame induction “an honor.” He said he was “grateful and surprised” that it happened these many years later.

But he wanted to talk more about getting young racers involved in local programs than his past successes.

He said the snow is good this winter at the Ski Park and the junior racing program is trying to rebuild after two winters without snow, what he called “a near death experience.”

“I’d like to see more interest from youth and parents,” he said.

“Little League and Pop Warner are everywhere, but where can you get kids involved in skiing?”

Santos and his guide, former Mount Shasta resident Ray Watkins, were stars in the visually impaired Paralympic Winter Games races in 1992 and 1994.

The Paralympic Games for athletes with many types of physical disabilities are typically held soon after the Olympic Games and at the same venues.

Competing in the B3 category for racers with less than 10% functional vision (the “high end” of the Paralympics visually impaired spectrum), Santos won all six of the events he competed in. He won two in Albertville, France in 1992 and four in Lillehammer, Norway in 1994.

He retired from racing in 1996 after 13 years on the USA team and moved to Mount Shasta soon after. He’s been coaching here ever since.

He and Watkins were both honored by the National Disabled Ski Hall of Fame during a ceremony last month in Breckenridge, Colorado.

The Hall of Fame award has recognized “outstanding individuals who have made significant contributions to disabled skiing” since 1995.

Santos and Watkins were the competition category inductees for 2015 and were the first duo to receive the honor.

Santos was born with an incorrectly shaped right eye that has always been extremely nearsighted. He said he had 20-20 vision in his left eye until he lost it after being hit by a golf ball.

Using a contact lens in his right eye, he said he can “recognize people I know by their size and shape and voice.” He can ski around on his own at the Ski Park, but not at race speed, because it’s difficult for him to see the terrain.

“I’m glad when I get a sunny day,” he said.

Without the contact lens, he can read small print if it’s very close to his eye.

With his monocular, he can watch the racers he’s coaching from a distance.

Santos said Watkins was essential to his Paralympics career. He said he learned to ski close behind his guide and follow his movement pattern.

Together they won giant slalom and Super GS gold medals in the only two Paralympic Games ski races held for the visually impaired in France in 1992.

Until then, the Winter and Summer Olympics had been held the same year every four years. After that they were offset by two years. The first Winter Games on the new schedule were held in ’94 in Lillehammer.

Slalom and downhill were added to the visually impaired race schedule that year, and Santos won gold in all four events.

That capped his career with six Paralympics starts and six wins.

Santos said he learned that “I’m more competitive than I would have thought... I don’t like to lose. I liked the challenge of it. It took a lot of effort. It felt good to see it through.”

He said he developed a special relationship with Watkins, and they remain good friends.

“We could communicate and know what needed to be done,” Santos said.

At times after a race, Santos said Watkins would ask him if he saw somebody or something in the crowd while they were racing.

“No, I saw you,” he would reply.

Watkins later joined the U.S. Paralympics Alpine Skiing National Team coaching staff, then became its head coach in 2006. He was named the U.S. Olympic Committee’s Paralympic Coach of the Year in 2010 after the U.S. team won three gold medals and 11 total medals.

Watkins now lives outside Park City, Utah. He is a member of the Paralympic Alpine Skiing National Team staff and a consultant for Team Semper Fi.

Santos said he had a long history with Mount Shasta before he moved here for quality of life reasons after living in much larger alpine communities in Tahoe and Aspen, Colo.

“This is a unique place... a small ski hill that’s a family deal. It’s ours,” he said.

He sees the Ski Park as a place where parents can leave their children for a day without having to worry about them getting lost the way they might at larger corporate “skiing meccas.” 

Santos said Leif Voeltz of The Fifth Season first introduced him to Watkins, and they spent time together in Mount Shasta in the early ’90s.

After he retired from racing, Watkins helped Santos get a coaching position at College of the Siskiyous.

Santos helped the COS race team that lasted only a few years in the early 2000s, and he’d like to see that get revived. He believes it would be good for the college and the community, a way to take advantage of the area’s unique qualities and potentially draw student-athletes from across the country and around the world.

Santos has taught in the Ski Park’s ski school and has done a variety of coaching over the years. Mostly he has worked for the junior team, and he’s hoping to see that program grow.

He praised the Ski Park for working with local schools to get students involved and “give them an opportunity to develop a lifelong love of skiing. You can go out for a ski day and enjoy it with generations, from age 5 to 85. Where else can you find that opportunity?”

He said, “There’s tens of thousands of high schools in the country, but how many of them can offer winter sports like this?”

As for the future of snow sports in the area, Santos said, “It’s gonna keep snowing here.”