Earlier this year, Gatorade chose Kerri for their “Everyday Athlete” campaign that features sports celebrities pairing them with amateur athletes who share the same first name. Kerri appears in ads along with Kerri Walsh, a two-time Olympic gold medalist in beach volleyball.
“It wasn’t really until junior high that I felt any awkwardness,” says Kerri Vanderbom whose older sister Mari and brother Tobi taught her to play baseball, basketball and cruise around their neighborhood. Kerri was born with spina bifida and says “My family didn’t baby me. I grew up with a close extended family in Gridley, a small town in northern California and always felt encouraged.” While their mother worked in a nursery and as a landscaper, Mari and Tobi kept track of their younger sister after school. “I had perpetual grass stains on my knees from crawling when I was little and as I grew up, my wheelchair wasn’t fast enough so I rode around on a skateboard.”
This spirit of determination and independence flourished when she was 12 years old and attended AbilityFirst summer camp in Chico, California. “This was my first time on a ‘level playing field’ and it was a real turning point for me,” she recalls. “They offered all kinds of sports and I was drawn to water skiing since I love to be in the water.” Destiny played its hand as Kerri met Royce Andes, developer of the Kan Ski, the first American sit ski who lived in a nearby town. He taught her to water ski that summer, worked with her on and off and five years later he entered her in nationals which just happened to be in Sacramento. “That’s when I started skiing in earnest,” says Kerri who traveled to competitions in the US, Europe and Australia. As a student majoring in recreational therapy at California State University-Chico, she competed for the team as the only disabled skier. “I only tricked for the team,” she explained almost apologetically, explaining that she did 180s, 360s, wake jumps and surface tricks.
Then in 2001 she traveled to Florida for the world championships…and came home with the title in the multipalegic 3 disability level. She went on to join the U.S. national team and in 2005, skiing for the USA at the world championships in Belgium met her future husband, Derek, A disabled skier for the Australian team. For Kerri, competition wasn’t about the winning, but about the fun. “It motivated me to stay in shape, it was a great lifestyle and I just love the water.” Her last big competition was in the Australian nationals in 2006.
Skiing is on the back burner for now as she pursues her PhD in movement studies in disability at OSU. She works with the college’s Multiple Sclerosis Exercise Program that provides twice weekly exercise sessions for people with MS. Kerri takes every opportunity to explore Oregon with Derek and their dog Clementine.