Cindy Ehnes in competition

Racing Toward Joy
Story 93

By Kirsten Cutler
Culture
Cindy Ehnes with medals

“I was born moving,” says Cindy Ehnes. “If there was a musical note playing, my infant body was twitching in time.”

Cindy hasn’t stopped moving since. An attorney serving for much of her career in healthcare regulation for the state of California, Cindy is also a lifelong and decorated downhill skier. Cindy first danced her way to a pursuit of downhill skiing when she was 8 years old.

“My parents' best friends in Ohio started a small ski area,” Cindy recalls, “and I pretty much grew up out there and took to skiing immediately.”

The speed, the slopes and the friendships drove Cindy to train competitively and pursue the sport throughout her lifetime. “The one thing I never really learned how to do very well was to stop,” she says with a laugh. 

Cindy Ehnes in competition

Cindy started ski racing in U.S. Ski & Snowboard Association (USSA) competitions in her early teen years and eventually earned a ski racing scholarship to college. Shortly into her college career, Cindy suffered an unimaginable accident. “I was 19, and I was working in a fast-food restaurant and got my hand caught in the meat grinder,” she recounts. As a result of the accident, Cindy lost her left hand and suffered from trauma-induced post-traumatic stress disorder, a lifelong condition she still manages. She did not lose her determination.

“When you have a major, life-changing event, you wake up the next morning, and you either have to choose to go right or to go left: right towards happiness, left towards despair,” Cindy says. “I chose that path that showed me that there are maybe a thousand ways to lead a happy life.”

"When you have a major, life-changing event, you wake up the next morning, and you either have to choose to go right or to go left: right towards happiness, left towards despair."
Cindy Ehnes with medals at exhibit

After a year, Cindy picked up downhill skiing once again. “I actually found a handicap ski program and raced in handicap skiing,” she says. “It would have been so easy to give in to everyone telling me I couldn’t do the things I loved, but I realized that skiing wasn't just something I did to win. It was something I did to be who I was.”

Not only did she continue racing: Cindy won gold and silver medals again and again in competitions around Europe. She brought home medals from Le Grand-Bornand, France, in 1974; Geilo, Norway, in 1980; and Leysin, Switzerland in 1982.

“The most amazing moment in my life was having won all my ski races in Geilo, Norway, and standing at the top of the podium during the medal ceremony, an official ceremoniously placing a gold medal around my neck and hearing the Star-Spangled Banner played throughout the village in my honor,” Cindy says. “It was absolutely a penultimate moment of feeling love for my country, love for my sport and love for the joy of competition.”

“It was absolutely a penultimate moment of feeling love for my country, love for my sport and love for the joy of competition.”
Cindy Ehnes Paralympic exhibit

Cindy didn’t fully know the impact of her legacy until she recently received a call that the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Museum in Colorado Springs wanted to showcase her skiing accomplishments as the first American woman to win gold in a winter international Paralympic competition.

“This lovely woman, Kathy, said they wanted to feature my medals in an exhibition,” Cindy says. “I said I’d have to hunt around and dig them out of a box somewhere. I packed them away as a part of my past life.”

In this season of her life, Cindy still enjoys speeding down the slopes, spending time with family including three grandkids, and serving as a consultant and expert witness on managed healthcare issues – her professional area of expertise. And among her most meaningful pursuits right now, she says, is serving on the community board for Adventist Health White Memorial.

“I have never been in an organization where a sense of mission is worn like a necklace adorning every staff member, every single day,” Cindy says. “They truly live it and bring it, and I am so honored to serve on the board at White Memorial and to aid in the mission of bringing God's love to service in the Boyle Heights area.”

Mission is something important to Cindy, she says, and part of her own is to help others discover joy.

“Learn how to win and learn how to lose, and don't overvalue either of those,” she says. “Don't overvalue public recognition when you score, and don't overvalue public scorn when you lose. Carry your own sense of being inside of you and just stay steady. It doesn't kill you to lose. Take big risks to be the person you need to be to live that life of joy.”