At age sixteen, Steve Hornsey was like a lot of other young men. He had no fear, no suspicion that the risks he took might bring disaster. But in 1980, Hornsey was out jumping his dirt bike and landed in such a way that sent him and his bike careening end-over-end across the ground. When he finally stopped, he found he couldn’t get to his feet, and then realized that he had broken his back.
The spinal cord injury meant the permanent loss of the use of his legs, but rather than settling for a life confined to his wheelchair, Hornsey continued to find ways to stay active, taking up wheelchair basketball, tennis and ultimately competitive water-skiing.
Hornsey is now a program director at the city of Sacramento’s Access Leisure department, a service which provides opportunities for children and adults with disabilities to participate in sports and other activities. But on weekends, Hornsey is busy training for the upcoming World Disabled Water Ski Championships in Melbourne, Australia. It’s a sport he has helped pioneer, and he already has a stack of medals for his achievements in the ski jump, slalom and trick-skiing events.
In order to bring the gold back to Sacramento, Hornsey first has to get to Melbourne. He needs to raise about $4,000 for the air fare and fees before the competition, which runs March 19-24. For more information about fund-raising and donating, or to find out more about Access Leisure, contact Hornsey at 277-2340.
How did you get into competitive skiing?
I was a recreational skier before the accident. I water-skied with my family and friends. I hadn’t competed at all, but it was definitely a sport I enjoyed. I grew up on Mountainview, in the Bay Area. We’d ski in the Delta and some lakes around there.
In about 1982, a couple of years after I was hurt, I was in college up in Chico. I was on a wheelchair basketball team at the time. A gentleman named Royce Andes, who had broken his neck while bare-foot water-skiing, was trying to develop a ski for disabled people. He contacted our team to try to get some people to come try it out.
So you tried it. How was it?
It was better than any thing I had ever tried before. I had tried knee boards, inner tubing, anything to get out on the water. But nothing was really functional. This was great. You could get on the ski. You can cut around, cross the wake. There was a real sense of freedom. This was just two years after my injury, so I was still finding out what I could do. I thought, “If I can do this, I can do almost anything.”
The first ski we used was about seven feet long and maybe 18 or 20 inches wide. The seat is right on the ski and has a knee bar that you rest against. You sit with your knees high to resist the pull of the boat. Both feet are side by side under a single strap or boot.
What’s you favorite event?
The jump, that’s my favorite competition. It’s the rush of it. It doesn’t matter how many times you go off the jump, it’s always a little scary. I don’t know if it’s the danger part, or the feeling that you are flying when you come off the ramp, but it’s very exciting. I love it.
In 1995 in Australia, I set a world record in jump. It was a little over 63 feet. The record has since been pushed to 77, and I’m hoping to push it out to about 80 feet this year. I’ve been lucky. A gentleman here in Sacramento has developed a ski for me for jumping that is better than anything I have used before. And he’s improved my jumping by coaching me.
I’m jumping in the mid-70s right now. I think [breaking the current record is] a real good possibility.
You broke your back jumping dirt bikes. Do you worry about getting hurt jumping skis?
It’s a high-risk sport. There’s always a risk that you can get hurt. I have a job and I depend on that income to support myself. I definitely don’t want to get hurt. But it’s something I really love doing. When I’m out there, the last thing on my mind is that I could get hurt. I’ve cut my feet. I’ve injured my shoulder and had other injuries, but nothing so major that I haven’t been able to come back into work the next day.
Definitely when I was a kid I had no fear. I would bolt full speed into things. Now I’m much more likely to take the time and be coached to do something the right way.
Do you think of yourself as a role model for other people with disabilities?
At one point I realized I might be. I had never thought of myself that way. But I realized at some point that by just being me, and by doing the things that made me happy, I could have a positive effect on other people. Not just on other people with disabilities, but even those who don’t have disabilities.
I think things like basketball and skiing helped me overcome some of the social stigma issues I had. Maybe I was feeling a little inadequate because I was disabled. But by being active like that, I didn’t feel like I was disabled. I felt like I was able to do a lot.
By feeling good about myself, by doing things that made me happy, I was able to overcome some of my personal stigmas about being disabled.