Like any other 13-year-old tomboy, Maggie Behle rarely sits still for long. She rides her skateboard and mountain bike. She plays soccer, basketball, hackey sack and even some occasional touch football. She swims, dives, rollerblades, and skis on snow and water, and sometimes air.
Oh, yes, and Maggie Behle has only one leg.It's easy to overlook this fact sometimes. Even her friends forget occasionally. "Here, carry this," they ask her, pressing some books in her direction, momentarily forgetting that her hands are occupied with crutches.
Which is fine with Maggie. Heaven knows, her life has been nothing if not a sustained effort to get people to notice her and not her handicap. The problem is, sometimes she does things that are so outrageous that her handicap is thrust on to center stage.
Who could resist staring openly at the sight of Maggie flying down the slopes at Park City last week at breakneck speed, one thin stem protruding from parka to ski, a flamingo on a board.
Maggie is one of the top disabled skiers in the country. Two years ago she won silver and gold medals in the national disabled championships, albeit in the absence of the U.S. national team. Last year, with the national team present, she was second in the slalom and third in the grand slalom.
Which are just a few of the reasons why Maggie was one of eight rising young disabled skiers named last month to the American Junior Elite Team (AJET), which will train and race around the country in the coming year.
"If she stays with it, she has a bright future," says Jack Benedict, director of disabled skiing for the U.S. Ski Team.
To answer your first question, Maggie was born with one leg. Her parents mourned all the things she would not be able to do in life, but within months she embarked on a mission to prove that there is almost nothing she can't do.
Outfitted with a prosthesis at nine months, Maggie was walking by 10 months. When Maggie was 5, her parents bought her an old bike at a garage sale, figuring she'd never be able to ride anyway. Three days later she was riding the bike, and jumping off whenever she needed to stop because the left pedal wasn't always in braking position at the right moment.
"Courage has never been a problem," says Sue, Maggie's mother.
Sue, a former University of Utah skier who bypassed an invitation to try out for the national team to pursue her studies, introduced Maggie to skiing when she was 5. Three years later she took up racing.
In some ways it is actually easier to ski on one leg than two. As Sue notes, "The biggest problem skiers have is getting their weight on the wrong foot; you don't have that problem with one leg." Because she has no thigh, Maggie skis without a prosthesis. She utilizes outriggers (minature skis) in place of poles, but they're mostly for balance. All her weight is on that one leg.
One-legged skiers already have challenged the world's top able-body skiers. Diana Golden held her own against the best two-legged skiers in the country a few years ago. Greg Menino, recently featured on the cover of Skiing Magazine, finished 30th out of 90 entries in the slalom at last year's national (able-body) championships. Disabled skiing has been an exhibition sport at two of the last three Olympic Games.
"Every year they get a lot better," says Meeche White, executive director of the National Disabilities Center in Park City. "A lot of disabled people want to be part of the mainstream, and that includes competing against them."
As a member of AJET, Maggie will be required to ski against able-body skiers this year. Don't be surprised if she beats more than a few of her two-legged rivals. She has a history of surprises.
Maggie plays basketball by hopping, and soccer and hackey sack with crutches. She rollerblades with the help of wheeled outriggers. She water skis on one ski of course (think about it: no back foot for balance and weighting.)
She likes jumping in Jupiter Bowl and powder skiing as much as racing. Her jumping philosophy: "I'd rather get a lot of air and fall, than a little and land it." She scared her mom to death one day by catching 10 feet of air. She confessed to Sue that she recently skied off a seven-foot cliff.
Courage has never been a problem.
Maggie had roles in two theater productions last summer, and danced in one of them - A Chorus Line - kicks and all. She also participated in gymnastics for a time.
"Maggie has fought for her place," says Sue. "She just wants to be a kid first and handicapped second."
Maggie has pondered such matters herself. Everyone is different in some way, she has concluded; her difference is simply more obvious, which invites stares and endless questions. She is indeed like everyone else in the general sense, and that is comforting.
"When I was little I thought it would be hard to go through the stuff of being different," she said between races one day at Park City. "But people don't care. They treat me the same. I just have to work a little harder. People notice my disability more than my personality . . . People are always asking about it, but I'd rather have them know than not ask and wonder."
Maggie wouldn't have her life any other way. Once she was discussing various disabilities with other disabled kids and came to a startling conclusion: Given a choice, she would remain one-legged. "I'm used to it," she explains. "I like it. There's nothing wrong with it. If I had another leg it would be like a disability for me. It would be so different."
Maggie won't wear the prothesis. She hates it almost as much as she hates dresses. So far, appearances have come in second to practicality. The prosthesis slows her down. Without a thigh, she must swing her prosthetic leg to walk. She's faster on crutches - or nothing at all.
"She has an identity as a one-legged person," says Sue. "The last time she really expressed sadness about it was when she was eight or nine. I think she made up her mind then to make the best of it."
And so she has. Maggie is pulling As and Bs at Salt Lake's Clayton Junior High despite missing more than a month of class annually to race and train. She keeps pace with her friends and continues her quest to do anything anyone else can do.
"Sometimes I do things just to prove people are wrong," she says, and with that, she skis off toward a chairlift in search of jumps and airtime.