Portraits of the Paralympics: Matt Hallat
Sochi is Matt Hallat’s third Paralympic Games with the Canadian Para-Alpine Ski Team. Losing his right leg through to the knee to Ewing’s sarcoma, a rare form of cancer, just before turning six, Matt is the embodiment of perseverance. After all, age six was when he first took up skiing. Now, he wants to pass his sense of resolve onto the next generation. Going into its second year, Matt’s Redefining Limits Camp gives young para-athletes the chance to explore their skiing skills. “In Para-Alpine skiing, there isn’t really a feeder program. In other sports, you start when you’re five years old, and as you get older, you go up with people who are your age, and you get better and better and better; all these things are introduced to you slowly over time. In para-alpine skiing, because of the nature of it, we don’t have that many people, and therefore there aren’t those sorts of programs. As such, young people who are identified as having some talent, very quickly get put onto a national development team.”
And it’s not for the faint of heart. “I would say most of these young para-athletes are weekend skiers when they first start out: they go out with their families on the weekends or they ski a couple days a week from Christmas to Spring Break. But when they turn 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, they’re invited to attend a few camps with the national team. And now they’re expected to be five- or six-day-a-week skiers. There’s a lot of pressure on their performance, so it’s quite a jump: from weekend skier, enjoying life and having fun, to pressure to perform. I’m trying to expose them to that idea early so that they’re a little more aware of the expectations in the event that it does happen to them. This also allows them to make an educated choice beforehand. And there isn’t a wrong choice in my mind. If they’re exposed to everything and they decide that they don’t want it, then that’s great. To me, that’s equally as good a win as somebody who decides their going to take a shot at the team.”
In fact, Matt derives great joy from watching his campers simply have fun on the slopes. “I see the youthful joy of it. You sacrifice those pure-fun ski days to achieve a goal. I get a lot out of the camp – just the sheer enjoyment of skiing again. And I hope that they take a bit of both out of it too. I hope that they can still very much enjoy the sport, but also start to see that, if they choose to move towards the national ski team, ultimately, the goal will be to win at the highest level; that you’re going to have to sacrifice some things along the way and that there are going to be expectations of you.”
Matt is also quick to point out that that mix of fun and challenge doesn’t just apply to skiing. “You take that into any aspect of life. With any job that you’re looking for, I would imagine that you’re better off if you’re more informed about what exactly that job entails. Obviously, there’s going to be some uncertainty, as there is with any decision in life, but being informed and having a better idea of what the commitment really means and what is expected of you can only help. If you’re faced with choices, and you have passion for it, there’s some motivation to succeed. And even when you look at other areas that aren’t as strong, I think that that’s helpful, and I think that you’ll be happier and more likely to succeed going forward.”
That kind of mentorship isn’t just restricted to Matt’s camp either. A seasoned motivational speaker, Matt is often asked to speak at corporate events. “I share my story, which is one of cancer and something that pretty much everybody can relate to on some level. That happens. It’s part of life that we get dealt bad cards sometimes, but you still have to play. Everybody faces some pretty daunting challenges at some point in their life. Some of my skiing challenges have seemed like I never know how I’m going to get out of them, but over time, gradually, you figure things out. And when you are able to stop and slow down, you realize that they probably aren’t that significant in the grand scheme of life. But when you’re enveloped in that thing that you’re passionate about, you sort of forget that. When you do look back on it, no matter how hard it was, you’re always thankful for it. I always say that having cancer was probably the best thing that could have ever happened to me because it provided me with the opportunity to look at challenges and work through them. I’m actually very thankful that it happened.”
Looking back, Matt acknowledges that having a mentor is an important part of success. “When I was young and coming up on the team, there were guys that I really looked up to for a variety of reasons. Their effect on me was huge. They fuelled my passion, made me want to be on the team and motivated me to chase becoming the best skier in the world. For me, it’s extremely important to know that the roles have reversed, and now I’m that older athlete; now I have that experience; now I have a better understanding of what it takes. I think it’s important to give back to those kids; to do exactly the same thing that was done for me. And it makes me feel really good doing that. Maybe some people see it as a one-way street, but I grain a tremendous amount from it as well.”
Read more Portraits of the Paralympics here!