Carina Edlinger: Slope Sound
It's hard to imagine hurtling down a ski slope without eyesight, but that's exactly what Austrian skier Carina Edlinger does. In her own words, Carina details how she has found ways to overcome her disabilities to help her win and – more importantly – find happiness in life
By Carina Edlinger
Film by Jade Ang Jackman
My name is Carina Edlinger and I’m from a small village near Salzburg in Austria. I was always a bit different when I was growing up. Nowadays I would call it unique, but it took quite a while to see myself like that.
After winning my all-time goal, which was becoming an Olympic Champion in Beijing 2022, and struggling for nearly half of my life with health issues including paralysis from the neck down, it was finally time to make some changes. If those surrounding me understood or not, it was time to concentrate on myself.
I made that decision after once again becoming paralysed. I went to hospital for my regular check-ups and after speaking with a therapist, everything clicked. Back then I couldn’t imagine that within a few months my entire story, all I had struggled through, would make sense. It turned out that I had the most extreme reaction to trauma that the doctors had ever seen. What does that mean now and why is that fact so important in order to understand what I have been through?
To go back to when it all started: when I was growing up, I always had poor vision but I developed a lot of other problems too. My teacher thought I had a learning problem and made me feel that I was stupid because I couldn’t keep up with all the other children. With stress and pressure increasing at such an early age, I quickly developed trauma issues. The years passed and the more the pressure increased, the more introverted I became. Being severely bullied did not make things easier either. At the age of 12 doctors figured out that I had developed a rare genetic eye condition called Stargadt Disease.
From this point onwards, life changed. I remember the doctor saying to me: “Little lady, your life is basically over. Forget your dreams, get social help, think about assisted living and join a support group.” At the time, I didn’t understand the complexity of my situation. Now I recall, I thought to myself: “I will move on from this and make everything possible so that I won’t have to give up on my dreams. I will achieve whatever I want.”
Eye disease hit me – and not just in a small way. Not being able to read from the board at school wasn’t that big a problem for me, but literally everything in my life was altered. Going through terrible depression a total of 14 times and losing any stability of my sight resulted in me drifting even further away from all the other teenagers around me. Losing all hope, negative feelings flooded my mind. “I just can’t live anymore, I’m done,” I thought. I don’t know how often I felt like this but at times suicide felt as if it was just around the corner.
Being a skier since my early childhood, and enjoying different sports with my family, was an important aspect of my life. During my younger days I was a major talent in Austrian cross-country skiing. So, at the age of 16, I moved over to para sports. I had won national trophies as an able-bodied skier and being number five in Europe at that time, I directly landed on the podium at the World Cup. In my first season winning two world championship titles, a world championship bronze, as well as the overall World Cup, made me the ultimate teenage star. But on the inside, I wasn’t shining. My personal struggle became an even bigger factor in my life.
What helped me at that time? After having many conversations with different athletes and hearing plenty of personal stories about how they became disabled, I finally found land and a kind of feeling of being at home. In the Para World Cup I was not different or strange, just an athlete, and even though I was disabled, it was still me, Carina. Many years later it turned out that being inspired by so many amazing people was what led me to study to be a journalist – to be able to share and embrace uniqueness as well as breaking down any barriers. Most barriers are in people’s heads and it’s time to change. No matter what your ethnic background, sexual orientation, disability or anything else – we are all unique human beings.
Things are different today, and I am glad to say I turned a corner and I have found happiness. No matter how many times I felt I didn’t want to be here any longer, I am still here, enjoying my life. There were motivational phrases I learned to help me move on from my depression and kept me believing in what I could achieve. Over the following years I collected many more trophies, failed even more and overcame huge obstacles. “No one person, or money, should ever stop you from achieving what you want and dream about,” was a motto I kept in mind.
After I became paralysed I was in fourth place twice and got an Olympic bronze in 2018. Then I became fully blind, although it is not the worst thing I have ever had to go through. In total, winning four World Championship golds, four times the overall World Cup, as well as two bronze and one gold at the Paralympics, I am the most successful Austrian Nordic female athlete ever. I remember after winning gold, a journalist wanted to know how important the medal meant to me. “My dog is worth more than any medal,” I replied. “Sport is great, but it’s even more important to remind yourself that life is way more than that.” The journalist didn’t expect to get an answer such as this, but this once again reminded me how being happy and living life has the highest value.
Talking about my dog Riley, he has become such an important role in my life. I’m convinced that in one way he has saved me. Back in 2019 when I got him as a guide dog my life took on a different purpose. I had someone to care about and I got to feel the love regardless of my inner anguish. My only wish was that I wanted to have a black dog so that one day I might see him in the white snow. From not being a dog person, Riley and I have become an unbeatable team. After the Paralympics in Beijing, Jade Ang Jackman, a well-known director from England, got in touch with me asking if I would like to share my story in a short film. Growing up, I was always aware of my unique situation and I knew that one day I would write a book and maybe make a film in order to encourage people out there. As I have said many times to myself: “No matter how unique you are, you are not alone. You are good the way you are.”
I never could imagine making a film so quickly, and being in that process with a special listening focus made it even more accessible and unique. For the first time, I paid attention to what my surroundings actually sounded like. All I can say is – it’s quite crazy and overwhelming if you close your eyes! Throughout that journey, I didn’t just meet amazing people believing in me and my story, but the entire crew got caught up in it, and it turned out to be such a passionate and emotional project connected by heartfelt emotion. I am still so pleased with it, but even more than that, it was finally a way to get my story out there and fulfil a long-awaited dream. Finally I had a way to get out and encourage others. The cherry on top was seeing my body as well as my vision reacting and notice that the more I opened my heart, the more fulfilled I felt and my sight improved for a short while. I can’t thank everyone involved enough for that!
I welcome my future with an open mind. Whatever it brings, I want to live life. For so many years I felt beaten down and depressed – as if I was stuck in a tunnel with barely any light at the end. Of course, there is never any guarantee in life that things will work out. I want to focus on further therapy to maybe one day get rid of my trauma and see my own miracle happening. When you work hard and keep on fighting, in the end eventually everything makes sense. I believe that God has a path for everyone. I just hope that what I do I can help and encourage people to believe in themselves. As the saying goes: “If you don’t believe in yourself, no one else will do it for you.”