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Madison Varmette Defies the Odds

By Elise Saarela
April, 12 2019
Madison Varmette
Madison Varmette at the 2018 FIS Visa Freestyle International World Cup at Deer Valley Resort in Utah

U.S Ski Team aerials athlete Madison Varmette (Stafford, Va.) is nothing short of extraordinary. She continues to flip, twist and progress in the aerials discipline, all while rehabilitating from a disorder that could have potentially ended her active lifestyle.  

In 2012 Madison was training at a gymnastics center in Stafford, Virginia, as a talented, competitive cheerleader. Her longtime tumbling and tramp coach, Jadi Jaroslav Novak, noticed her progression in flips and invited her to attend an Elite Aerial Development Program's (EADP) Talent ID Camp in Lake Placid, N.Y., for aerials skiing. Varmette was excited about the opportunity, but before she received her official invitation for the Talent ID Camp, she experienced something that she thought would end her athletic career.

In early May of 2012, four days after Varmette turned 16 years old, she felt her leg fall asleep while sitting on her bed. “First I tried to walk it off, and then it started to get hot and then it kind of started to burn,” recalls Varmette, “All of a sudden I felt intense burning pain and I dropped to the floor in tears. I couldn’t get words out, it hurt so bad.” After calling her mother into her room and experiencing another surge of burning pain, Varmette was carried to the car and rushed to the emergency room.   

The confusion of diagnosing Madison quickly set in. The doctors admitted they did not know what was going on or how to handle it, and multiple diagnoses were declared, including a spinal cord stroke. After spending time in the Children's Hospital in Washington, D.C., Madison was placed in an in-patient rehab center next to the hospital. “I was getting better extremely fast,” she says. After a few days, she was transitioned to out-patient physical therapy and a few weeks later returned to school.

Despite not having a formal diagnosis, Madison's mother, Pamela, encouraged her to still attend the Talent ID Camp that August. Both mother and daughter made the trek to Lake Placid, with little to no expectations on what would happen.

“I had no intention of doing any physical activity while I was there, I was just going to watch. But once I got there, I couldn’t resist.”
 - Madison Varmette 

Madison hopped onto the trampoline and did a backflip, landing it perfectly and experiencing no pain. From that point on, Varmette slowly worked into her flips and was soon training alongside the other athletes who were trying out.

The Talent ID Camp tryouts are set up to resemble what it would be like to actually be on the aerials development team. The athletes’ day consists of workouts in the morning, followed by trampoline training and water ramp practice. During water ramps, the camp directors like to see how well and how fast athletes can master the water ramps by making them do straight airs off of the ramps, then progressing to front flips and backflips. “It is way harder than it looks,” regarded Varmette, “The first time I was going for my first front flip, I was going down and my right leg ran into my left leg, took me out sideways, and I just tumbled and then dangled off the edge of the ramp.” Despite her numb legs, Varmette did extremely well.

At the end of the Talent ID Camp, Varmette didn’t make the team; however, she regained both her courage and athleticism, saying that “overall, that camp was a huge confidence booster.” She joined her high school cheer team when school was back in session, she continued flipping and twisting, but craved to be back in Lake Placid.

After many hours of research, Pamela found Dr. Daniel Becker at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore. Dr. Becker officially determined that Varmette had Transverse Myelitis (TM), a neurological disorder which disrupts the messages the spinal cord nerves send to different parts of the body, ultimately causing pain, muscle weakness, and other sensory problems.

Once school was back in full swing, Madison's uncle invited her to New York to visit. She knew she needed to return to Lake Placid and missed required cheer practices to make the trip. Once Varmette arrived with her uncle, she was asked to test out the trampolines again. Varmette was soon back on the tramp and tumbling floor, showing her skills off to staff. She was recorded by the program director in hopes that Todd Ossian, the U.S. Ski Team Head Aerials Coach, would be impressed and offer her a spot on the development team.  

A week after returning home from Lake Placid, Madison received a call that she made it into the EADP and that she would need to be back to Lake Placid in a week. With a quick turnaround time, Varmette packed her bags, said goodbye to her cheer friends, and embarked on a new adventure that would officially start her aerials career.

The EADP is an intense training program to help prepare aspiring athletes for the national team. “We would train all morning and afternoon, and then do online school from 6 to 9 p.m.,” recalls Varmette. After three years in the EADP, Varmette was able to the jump to the U.S. Ski Team for the 2017-18 season.

Madison's story is just as special as she is. She was able to defy all odds by progressing from barely walking to becoming a national team aerial skier in the span of six years. The 2018-19 season was Varmette’s best to date: she competed at the 2019 World Championships and finished the FIS Freestyle World Cup season ranked sixth overall. With the one-in-a-million chance of getting TM, paired with the one-in-a-million chance of having the opportunity to become an Olympian, Madison Varmette is one extraordinary athlete.