Gold-medal ski racer hopes to recover Olympic rings and priceless footage of her inspiring life story
By Bonnie Eslinger
Twenty years ago life stole Stephani Victor’s legs. Now the record of her life had been robbed.
That’s what Victor, a gold-medal Paralympic ski racer, recalls thinking as she surveyed her ransacked Westchester home in December. Thieves got away with jewelry, passports, camera equipment, a television and two automobiles, both of which were adapted with hand-controls.
Also gone were her engraved Olympic Team USA rings from each of the four games she’d competed in — including gold medalist rings from Torino in 2006 and Vancouver in 2010, mementos of her pinnacle victories.
Just as if not more important to Victor is the story of her ascent, a narrative painstakingly documented on countless hours of video since 1995, when a drunk driver changed the course of her life. With her computer hard drives and editing equipment also stolen, that too had been taken from her.
At the time of the crash, Victor was 26, a recent graduate of USC’s film school, standing in front of a house with a friend. An out-of-control car came out of nowhere, crushing her up against a vehicle parked in the driveway.
When her legs were amputated, Victor turned to something she knew, filmmaking, and found through the focus of a video camera that she was able to regain some control over her life.
“I had a dream that I would make a documentary about my recovery, and that really became my motivation,” Victor said. “Gosh, if I can live the story of making a bad situation good. Well, that’s who I am and that’s what I’m going to do with this. So I started filming early on.”
The project helped motivate Victor to conquer the odds and maintain her independence, and for the next two decades she held onto that vision through reconstructive surgeries, rehabilitation and learning to walk on prosthetic legs.
Also captured on film, her love story: Victor met her future husband, Marcel Kuonen, when she started taking adaptive ski lessons with him in 1999. Head coach of the Park City Disabled Ski Team at the time, Kuonen became her personal champion, setting Victor’s sights on the Winter Olympics and helping her achieve that dream.
Now, the record of her saga was gone.
The thieves left only one length of footage behind, one that both added to Victor’s feelings of violation while offering some hope of catching the burglars and recovering what was stolen: Home surveillance video.
The Dec. 9 footage, more than two hours of it, shows four African-American men walking around the perimeter of her home, entering through a back door and turning her home inside out in their search for valuables.
The experience of knowing that strangers rifled through and took possession of her most personal belongings has left Victor, a motivational speaker known for her inspiring and positive attitude, with feelings of anger.
“You don’t have the right to clean out somebody’s home and steal their cars, [especially] when you know that they’re disabled.” Victor said. “It’s tampering with the independence that I have fought so hard to get.”
But Victor’s channeling that outrage into a larger mission, encouraging others to be proactive in combatting crime in their communities by participating in neighborhood watch programs and providing information to police about suspicious activity.
She’s also asking for anyone who can identify the men to come forward.
A $5,000 reward is being offered through the Chaffin Luhana Foundation, for which Victor is a spokesperson, for information reported to the Los Angeles Police Department leading to the arrest of the suspects and the return of the property.
Although police recovered the vehicles, none of the other stolen items have been recovered to date.
Los Angeles police detectives could not be reached for comment about the case, but Victor said they’ve stayed in close touch with her and that she’s confident investigators are doing their best.
For weeks after the crime, the lingering trauma of being robbed would sometimes wake Victor in the middle of the night.
“I have dreams, nightmares … because I paid for this emotionally too,” she said in February. “I didn’t do that after losing my legs, I did that after being robbed.”
The experience has also left Victor — a philanthropic supporter of such youth-focused programs as the Spirit Awakening Foundation, which works with at-risk children in the juvenile justice system —
more worried about the next generation.
“I want to encourage our young people to know it’s not all Facebook, all celebrity, all selfie all the time. You actually have to work to get anywhere in this world. And there’s nothing wrong with that. When you work and do what you love it’s the most rewarding thing to build your self-esteem,” she said.
“The initial reaction from me was grave disappointment,” she continued. “I had been in a desperate position too, but I prayed to God for guidance. I didn’t go out and commit crimes in our community and hurt other people. It’s not the same set of values, and it breaks my heart.”
But Victor refuses to see herself as a victim, 20 years ago or now.
“This is a universal story of how we all face challenges. These young men robbed our house, they’re out there, somewhere … dealing with challenges that I can’t comprehend,” she said. “[But] they have the same function of choice that I did. If we can cultivate awareness and prompt people to choose right — to choose higher ground, to choose the fair and moral thing — we’re going to make a better society.”
Anyone with information about the crime is asked to call LAPD detectives at (310) 482-6334.