The steely, compact athlete who grew up in Dove Creek said she never saw herself as disabled.
Because of a medical complication, her leg was amputated below her knee shortly after she was born.
Using a prosthetic leg, she was learning to ski with the other kids at Purgatory and Telluride by age 3, and racing by age 9. By age 14, Riddell’s appetite for speed and victory led to a career as a professional ski racer. She traveled the world from 1994 to 2004 and became a Paralympic champion.
“I was a very technical skier, but it did not happen overnight. My success was due to a collection of people – my parents, coaches and teammates,” she said.
At 23, she retired from ski racing, worked as an EMS technician, got married and settled in Dolores, where she is raising her son while working in the dental field.
On Dec. 8, Riddell was inducted into the USA Disabled Snow Sports Hall of Fame for her successes in downhill and slalom events.
“I was a little surprised when I got the call because I retired 14 years ago,” Riddell said in an interview with The Journal. “I said, ‘You’re still talking about me?’”
There’s a lot to talk about.
At 18, Riddell won gold, silver and two bronze medals in the 1998 Paralympic Games at Nagano, Japan. During the 2002 Paralympic Games at Salt Lake City, she again won gold and silver.
In addition, Riddell won 27 national titles and was the World Cup Overall Champion in 1999 and 2000. She won 11 Individual World Cup Globes, and took home gold, silver and bronze medals in the 1996 and 2000 World Championships in Lech, Austria and Anzere, Switzerland.
“After I won my first gold at 18 in Japan, I was able to relax more, and the experience helped me succeed in more races,” she said.
She topped off her trophy case with the Hall of Fame induction held during a ceremony in Breckenridge.
“It is a bit surreal, because my mentors are also in the Hall of Fame,” Riddell said.
Looking back, the experience was priceless, she said. At age 14, she made the U.S. Adaptive Ski team and traveled throughout Europe and the U.S.
“On average, we were skiing 200 to 230 days per year,” she said. “It was like a full-time job. We had to find our own sponsors back then. My main one was Visa.”
Making the team was a dream come true, but it required sacrifice.
“I had a lot of drive and wanted to travel and compete in the Paralympics,” she said. “I missed a lot of typical activities as a kid, like going to prom, but even when it was difficult, I never gave up on my racing goals.”
Racing at the best ski areas in the U.S. and then in the Alps and Japan seemed like a good option.
“Ski racing opened a lot of doors and allowed me to meet others with disabilities and see their success with their lives and careers,” she said. “At the race, we all had some disability, but nobody talked about it – we talked about the competition, the course, the conditions.”
Riddell uses a simple prosthetic for skiing. The foot moves fore and aft and fits into a regular ski boot.
A key to her success was being coachable, she said, and learning to stay grounded during big moments. She credits good advice from her parents, coaches and teammates, including Greg Mannino, Jim Lagerstrom, Sara Will, Joe Holgate and Kevin Jardine.
“You have to realize as an athlete, you don’t know everything,” Riddell said. “I listened to my coaches and trusted them. You think you had a perfect run, but they point out all the ways to improve, and make you practice the smallest moves over and over until it becomes muscle memory.”
Mental toughness was also important.
In the Paralympics, she told herself not to accept anything less than gold, and it worked.
“I was good at willing myself to race my best, that Zen feeling every athlete seeks, where you are not nervous and very confident. If you think you’re going to crash, then you probably will.”
In 2000, she was named Colorado Sports Woman of the Year and inducted in the Colorado Sports Hall of Fame. In 2010, she considered a comeback, but an injury prevented it. Now, she enjoys teaching her 3-year-old son, Sawyer, to ski.
“He gets to the bottom and says, ‘Again, again?’”
The 2018 Paralympic Games will take place in PyeongChang, South Korea, March 8-18. Mary Riddell Day in Dove Creek is March 12, the day she won her first gold medal in the 1998 Paralympic Games in Japan.