CANTON, Ohio - Sandy Dukat knows the end of her professional skiing career is near.Some days, it feels nearer than others.
"I need to make some smart decisions," the Canton native said of her future, following the 2006 Paralympic Games that begin this weekend in Turin, Italy. "I want to make sure I can still get out of bed in the morning after I retire. My leg feels like its 66 years old now."
Dukat has gotten a lot of mileage out of that left leg. She was born without a right femur, and her right foot was amputated at age 4. Not that it slowed her down.
Dukat played basketball and highjumped for the track team at McKinley High School. She graduated from Wittenberg University, took up swimming and was a member of the 1998 U.S. team for the World Disabled Championships in New Zealand. She began skiing that year, switched sports and progressed quickly.
Four years later, Dukat was on the 2002 U.S. alpine team for the Paralympics in Salt Lake City. She earned bronze medals in the Super G and slalom. She also won two bronze medals at the 2004 world championships. Dukat won her way onto the 2006 Paralympics team via her four silver medals at the 2005 U.S. championships.
"I am much more ready for the 2006 Games because of my 2002 experience," Dukat said. "There's no way you can prepare for what happens. There's so much attached to it ... the fans, publicity, things you only experience every four years. I am much more confident in my skiing abilities as well."
Dukat, who lives in Vail, Colo., has gained a bit of confidence from crisscrossing the country speaking on behalf of The Hartford, one of her corporate sponsors.
"Sandy's just great as a guest speaker," U.S. Coach Kevin Jardine said.
She also finds time to train, however, and hopes that training pays off in all four alpine events in Turin. Her toughest competition will come from her U.S. teammates as well as skiers from Canada, Slovakia and the Czech Republic.
"I think my strength is in the technical events, the giant slalom and slalom," Dukat said. "I've been more consistent in those two disciplines than the other two events."
"Her skiing has become much more consistent," Jardine said. "She's really giving it everything she's got."
But, how much more does Dukat have to give?
She will turn 34 in May. She has a steady boyfriend. The wear-and-tear of travel and competition are beginning to make Dukat look toward the future.
"I've been an athlete for so long ... ," Dukat said, her voice trailing off. "That, and the lifestyle of being on the road, take their toll on you as you get older. The range of ages spans wider on the disabled circuit than elsewhere, and I could be strong and competitive next year. But, I think, this will definitely be my last Paralympics."
All of the Paralympic events take place at the same venues as the regular winter Olympic Games. The Paralympics begin with Friday's opening ceremonies. Dukat's first skiing event is Saturday. The final skiing event is scheduled for March 18, with the closing ceremonies the next day.
"Every time someone watches us ski down that hill, we're providing more awareness and a better image of what people with disabilities can do," Dukat said. "Even if the athletes don't realize it at the moment, people watching them are seeing abilities instead of disabilities."