-- A 10-year-old double amputee who lost everything in the California wildfires learned how to snowboard from a Paralympic medalist who is also an amputee.
Lilly Biagini, of Santa Rosa, California, spent last week hitting the slopes in Breckenridge, Colorado, with Keith Gabel, a U.S. Paralympian bronze medalist in snowboarding.
Gabel said of his student, “I’ve never met anybody with the spirit that Lilly has.”
“When I turned and I stopped without anybody’s help, it made me feel strong and proud of myself,” Lilly said. “I was really surprised that I did it by myself.”
Lilly, a third-grader, chose to have her legs amputated in 2014 after being born with arthrogryposis multiplex congenital, a condition that prevented her joints from bending.
Lilly and her mom, Jessica Biagini, had to evacuate their home within about five minutes in October when one of the fast-moving wildfires that devastated parts of the Sonoma County area swept through their neighborhood. Their home was destroyed by the fire, along with all of Lilly’s medical equipment.
“Everything that makes Lilly a confident, spunky, sassy little girl she lost,” said Biagini. “She’s very, very proud of who she is and proud to be an amputee. She never wears pants because she wants people to see her prosthetic limbs.”
A San Francisco-based prosthetic company stepped up to offer Lilly a new set of legs for free. Then she got an invitation to attend The Hartford Ski Spectacular in Breckenridge, one of the nation’s largest winter sports festivals for people with disabilities.
Instead of skiing, Lilly decided to tackle snowboarding, something she hadn’t tried before.
“When I was introduced to her, her jaw just dropped,” recalled Gabel, 33, who said Lilly picked up the essentials of snowboarding within one hour of lessons. “Her level of excitement for this whole thing and her gratitude, I don’t have the vocabulary to express those feelings.”
Lilly said her favorite part of the experience was, “Being free and being with Keith.”
“He told me to keep working hard and help yourself and be proud of yourself,” Lilly said of Keith. “I’m so amazed and very, very grateful … for being here with everybody and being alive.”
During their time on and off the slopes, Lilly and Gabel had the chance to talk about the more serious near-death experience Lilly went through during the fire.
“She has a very vivid memory of the whole thing and I think that’s going to stick with her for a long time,” Gabel said. “And to see how she’s handled it so far, it’s empowering. It really is.”
Gabel is now working with the Utah-based prosthetic company he uses to get more prostheses made for Lilly. He said the equipment Lilly lost in the fire is likely upwards of $100,000 and can “make or break” an amputee who has to go without it.
"I’ll use my [frequent flyer] miles and purchase her and my mom plane tickets to Utah," said Gabel, who is based in Utah. "I know how important it is to have good fitting sockets and also have the components to go with it."
He added of Lilly, "She really inspires me. She really does invoke that will to prevail.”