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Jamie Sarubbi: Paralympic Partnership

By Sally Anne Flecker
Story originally published in spring 2015.

The first thing you need to know about her Brooklyn family, Jamie Sarubbi (MGT ’15) says, is that if one member is involved in a project, they are all involved in the project.

In late fall 2012, Sarubbi’s older sister, Caitlin, a social and cognitive neuroscience student at Harvard and a visually impaired, competitive ski racer, called to say she wanted to ski in the 2014 Sochi Paralympic Games.

“Jamie, this will be my last time to race. I’m going to graduate after this and get a job and be a real person,” Caitlin told her. But she would go to Sochi only if her sister would sign on as her racing guide. How could the Notre Dame sophomore turn her down, even if it meant putting her own college career on hold for a year?

This wasn’t Caitlin’s first time to the rodeo, so to speak. She had skied in all five alpine events at the Vancouver Paralympics in 2010, netting two sixth- and one eighth-place finishes. Not bad for someone who wasn’t expected to live through her first night on this earth. Caitlin was born with a rare condition, Ablepharon-Macrostomia Syndrome. She’s legally blind. In fact, she was born without eyelids, which she has now thanks to the many reconstructive surgeries she’s undergone, starting when she was only 4 days old. Her hearing is partially impaired, her hands and feet are underdeveloped. What wasn’t affected was her intelligence, spirit and drive.

The discovery of Caitlin’s talent at skiing came about as an indirect result of the 2001 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center. John Sarubbi, the father of four girls and a boy, is a New York City firefighter. After 9/11, an organization called Disabled Sports USA invited families of New York firefighters who had children with disabilities to spend a week at a ski lodge in Breckenridge, Colorado. The whole family fell in love with skiing. But Caitlin felt set free for the first time. Over the years, she became so skilled at racing that she moved into the elite ranks of the sport.

When the 2013 spring semester wound up, Sarubbi met with her sister to begin training, both on and off the slopes. While Sarubbi is athletic and has skied since she was in grade school, she had never raced in her life nor been a guide. Now she would have to learn both skills at once. “Usually guides are professional, so they’ve been doing it for a while,” she says. “And usually a specific guide and blind skier have four years to ski together before the games. We pretty much did it in under a year.”

A guide and blind skier’s relationship is very close, Sarubbi says. “You have to live, eat, sleep and become so in tune that you see as one skier.” (In fact, Caitlin didn’t want to go through such intense training with a stranger for a professional guide, as she had for the 2010 Paralympics, which is why she asked her sister this time around.) Sarubbi’s neon ski suit helped her sister make her out up ahead on the course. They had walkie-talkies in their headsets to give each other feedback and figure out an ideal distance between themselves — not too close or Caitlin would be on Sarubbi’s skis, and not too far or Caitlin would slow down because she couldn’t see her. (Sarubbi, as the front skier, couldn’t see how far behind Caitlin was without turning around and looking — not something you want to do in the middle of a race.) Adding to the complexity, Caitlin has poor depth perception. Sarubbi finally figured out what Caitlin thought was a certain distance was usually farther. Once she understood that, she could correct for it. Herein lies one of Sarubbi’s great discoveries about herself: She is very good at translating another person’s perception and adjusting for it. “I’ve found I can explain something in different ways that work for different learners,” she says. “I’ve actually talked about that on job interviews. I have a lot of experience with people who learn differently, especially physically disabled people, because they have no choice but to adapt.”

Unfortunately, their Sochi dreams came to a screeching end during a World Cup competition in January 2014. On the inspection run of the first day, Caitlin sustained a concussion when she hit a bad patch of snow that Sarubbi didn’t see. Caitlin wasn’t allowed to ski for two months, which put her out of contention for the Paralympics. Disappointed for herself, Caitlin felt even worse that she had let her sister down.

Sarubbi, though, had it all in perspective. “I met so many great people with amazing stories. We spent a lot of time with the Paralympic team. There were a lot of veterans, and a lot of people born with disabilities,” she says. “It completely changed my perception of the world. I learned a lot more about life in that one year than I ever could inside any classroom.”