Originally published in the Winter + Spring 2018 issue.
Sarah Herron’s right hand wrestled with the ski jacket’s thick coat sleeve. She pulled the cuff as high it would go, until it bunched around her left bicep. Her stomach twisted into a pretzel. The 23-year-old looked around the ski rental shop and couldn’t find a glove or a mitten that would fit her arm. Her dad waited patiently near the doorway. Behind him, the steep, sparkling white slope was brightly lit beneath bluebird sky. Herron took a deep breath and grabbed one of the ski poles that leaned against the counter. “Don’t forgot your other pole!” said the rental technician. “I don’t need it…I only have one hand,” Herron calmly replied, though her shoulders tensed. For her entire childhood and into her twenties she avoided activities that drew attention to her physical difference – until she learned how to ski.
Herron was born with a partial arm that ends at her left elbow, due to a condition called Amniotic Band Syndrome, which occurs when an unborn baby becomes entangled in the womb’s fibrous amniotic bands. Raised in Evergreen, the Coloradan’s dad was a big-time skier and encouraged her to click-in as a kid. Self-consciousness, shaky inner-esteem, and body insecurities steered her away from sports and outdoor adventure: she feared failure or to be mocked for attempting hobbies that were designed for able-bodied people. Teammates and bystanders stared at her, because she was unique, and interactions potentially ended in embarrassment. As a result of the social phobia, throughout high school and college — Herron graduated from California’s Otis College of Art and Design with a degree in graphic design, which led to a successful eight-year-long career as the art director for 72andSunny — she had zero desire to exercise, so she maintained her figure by calorie-counting and restraining from food, a form of disordered eating called anorexia nervosa. As of 2015, close to 720,000 women in the U.S. suffer from the condition in their lifetime, reports the Indian Journal of Psychiatry.
Seven years ago, at age 23, a very slight shift in perspective led Herron to pull on ski boots. Her exact source of inspiration was incalculable, but she chose to accept all of the risks connected to her perceptions of failure, despite her physical and emotional vulnerabilities. “My entire family was going skiing, I didn’t want to be left out, the snow looked so majestic; so, I swallowed my fear,” recalled Herron.
I swallowed my fear.
As B.K.S. Iyengar writes in Light on Yoga, “It is through your body that you realize you are a spark of divinity”: For Herron, the rewards were transformational on every level. The addictive thrill of skiing catalyzed a new passion for outdoor exploration — namely camping and hiking followed later by yoga, rock climbing, SUPing, and backpacking — and an interest in athletics in order to prepare her body for those challenges.
“I loved pushing myself, the sense of accomplishment, and the freedom I felt in the outdoors. Physical accomplishment aside, standing on a mountain summit is spiritually empowering,” she said. Following several winter seasons, the self-consciousness that Herron felt in her downhill gear faded and evolved, instead, into an affirmation of her ability. “Skiing with one pole was better than not skiing at all, and I realized that people weren’t looking at me because I didn’t belong. They were curious and impressed, because what I was doing was badass.”
I loved pushing myself, the sense of accomplishment, and the freedom I felt in the outdoors.
Herron sat next to her dad on an Aspen Snowmass chairlift and watched a mono-skier biff it on the moguls. He immediately popped up and launched-off downhill. Now a skilled skier — it was March 2016 — Herron felt inspired by the guy’s perseverance, which led to an epiphany. After Herron’s 2012 appearance on Bachelor in Paradise, she received countless messages from girls and women who have physical differences and sought Herron’s advice on how to acquire self-confidence or break into new activities. The need was undeniable: hundreds of thousands of females wanted encouragement and connection. “Why don’t I start an organization where I take girls skiing and use it as a metaphor for personal growth?” she said to her dad.
Introducing, SheLift: an organization that empowers girls with limb differences to improve self-acceptance and confidence through outdoor adventures and body-positive mentorship. The National Center for Health Statistics estimates that 35 to 43 million people with physical and mental differences live in the U.S. alone. It’s unsurprising then that more than 400 North Americans, from age 5 to 56, applied for the nonprofit’s debut ski retreat in Aspen, CO. In March 2017, seven young women—with single arms, amputated legs, and a rare condition called TAR (thrombocytopenia with absent radius) syndrome—stepped off of the tarmac together and learned how to ski or snowboard. For some, it was the first time that they connected with other women who related to their perspective and the challenges that they faced. “In our society, women don’t compliment or lift each other up enough. With SheLift, women overcome those barriers, feel proud for their accomplishments and reinforce one another. If we can compliment each other and move away from isolation, women will have much better self esteem,” said Herron.
Moving forward, SheLift will host two annual retreats. Each group of women will learn a new outdoor activity from an inspirational expert in that sport, accompanied by a licensed life coach. As the number of women with physical differences increases in the outdoors, not only may their lives improve but also the lives of those with whom they interact. After Herron learned to ski, she teamed up with a personal trainer, who taught her how to use yoga blocks to balance her short arm in particular poses. At her first-ever Vinyasa session, her teacher thanked her for taking the class and said, “It’s incredible to watch you. You are so inspiring.”
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Photos courtesy of DH Brown Photography
“Early on I found fulfillment in extreme sports. Pursuing any and all excuses to get out and explore. I still have that same passion for the outdoors, especially mountain biking and skiing, but after six years in the newspaper industry, my focus turned to the under-represented, undiscovered people and places of the world. I traveled across far reaches of the world to document world disasters, culturally rich (and changing) locales, and unique and beautiful landscapes.
My work has since shifted into a more commercial realm, creating content for big and small brands alike, but I still keep my foot in the editorial door, as I think photojournalism and authentic content is paramount in keeping our world honest and beautiful.”