O'Leary's first ski lesson for someone with a disability was turning out
to be a disaster. It was gray, windy and bleak - not a typical Colorado
day. The instructor at Winter Park Resort was teaching 23 children with
amputations from Children's Hospital in Denver. Lying in the snow, they
were miserable from the cold. One small boy, with glasses sliding down
his nose, sobbed after falling repeatedly. "I hate your guts," he cried.
It was January 1970. When O'Leary taught those children to ski, the concept
of people with disabilities learning to ski was unique. Few other places
in the country accommodated skiers with a disability - or recreation of
any type for people with a disability. But O’Leary’s ski lesson that day
had a happy ending. By afternoon, the children were riding the lifts,
turning and stopping. Even when they fell, the students were laughing
and having fun. The boy with the glasses, Chris Lind, said, "Hal, I don't
really hate you."
Thirty years later, O’Leary is still teaching people with disabilities
how to ski, and his efforts have grown into the largest adaptive ski program
in the world: the National Sports Center for the Disabled in Winter Park,
Colo. This winter, the center’s instructors and coaches will celebrate
its 30th anniversary and teach about 25,000 lessons in skiing, snowboarding,
snowshoeing, cross-country skiing and ski racing. A world record disabled
ski-down at Winter Park Jan. 20, 2000, will kick off a year-long anniversary
celebration. With equipment and instruction that accommodate people with
almost all types of physical and developmental disabilities, NSCD hopes
to have people with a wide variety of disabilities represented at the
event. More than 1,000 skiers will be invited to participate.
"Adaptive skiing started primarily as something
for people with amputations," explains O'Leary. "Over the past 30 years,
it’s really grown into a sport that everyone can participate in. The ski-down
is to celebrate NSCD’s anniversary, but also to show the growth in adaptive
skiing, which now accommodates people with spinal cord injuries, cerebral
palsy, visual impairments, developmental disabilities, and so on. If someone
can make their way to our office, we can most likely get them on skis."
June Anderson didn’t learn to ski until she was in her 20s. She says after
polio weakened her leg, she spent most of her childhood watching her twin
sister participate in sports. "My twin sister was the cheerleader in the
family and I was the sideline supporter," she says. "I remember trying
to walk in my sister’s ice skates and trying to convince my mother that
I could ice skate, too," recalls Anderson. "She gave in to my persistence
and took me to the neighborhood rink so I could try my skills at ice skating,
which I knew I could do. Of course, I couldn’t skate. My leg was too weak
and wouldn’t support me on those tiny blades. I was so disappointed."
Anderson remembers accompanying her sister and other classmates on a school
ski trip as a teenager. Anderson watched-and wished that she could take
a ski lesson, too. "All of that changed in 1977," she says. "Through a
very persistent acquaintance and my informed physician, I made the call
to Winter Park and made arrangements for my first ski lesson with the
then Winter Park Handicapped Ski Program, now known as the National Sports
Center for the Disabled. That day changed my life forever. "Before I learned
to ski I would try to conceal my skinny leg. I would wear pants and when
asked why I didn’t ski I would make up a story about an old football injury.’
In other words, I would hide who I was. When I learned to ski a new sense
of pride came through. I was so proud of what I had accomplished that
I began talking about it and I realized that I could participate."
Anderson is a "four-tracker," a skier who uses two skis and two outriggers,
forearm crutches with ski tips on the ends. For the past 18 years, she
has volunteered as an instructor for NSCD, teaching children who use the
same ski technique.
Carol Page is a physical therapist and coordinator of the Handicapped
Sports Program at Children's Hospital in Denver. She has been taking her
patients to NSCD since 1975 and says skiing offers a social outlet where
the children can be similar to their peers, plus the chance to gain skills
and find self-worth. "We continue to hear from previous participants,"
says Page. "And many of them are able to relate now as an adult the positive
impact it had on their lives and the feeling that they could achieve in
other areas because of the achievements they experienced when they were
younger. "There have been several individuals from our program who have
gone on into the competitive world of skiing. And I think it’s very exciting
to see children who come from backgrounds where skiing would not have
been something they would have done and achieve more than their families
thought they could. There’s a little girl going this year, for instance,
who has never seen snow."
NSCD operates with more than 1,000 volunteers
each year, all of whom receive special training to teach adaptive skiing.
They are also encouraged to pursue professional certification to work
with more involved clients. Some, like Page of Children's Hospital, have
been with the program for more than 15 years. "Back in the early years,
we didn't have a template to go by," Page remembers. "We would just make
it up as we went along, and figure out what would work and what wouldn't.
It's been amazing to see the evolution of ski equipment over the past
30 years. I think much of that can be attributed to Hal's perseverance
and creativity. In the early days, we taped rope between skis. We didn't
have ski bras. We borrowed what equipment we could for the kids to use.
It was a real creative situation."
"When I started skiing, we were using the original sit-skis, like bathtubs
we used to call them," says Paul Speight, owner of Spokes n Motion, a
company that distributes and markets adaptive sports equipment. "When
I started skiing we were using basic materials like aluminum and steel.
Now we can use high quality plastics, titanium and other materials. Because
we’re better at skiing, we’re trying to better imitate the body’s motion,
like using shocks in mono-skis, or bicycle technology imitating the motion
of the knee. We’re looking at better, higher performance." Speight first
started an adaptive equipment business in his native New Zealand more
than 15 years ago. Winter Park "was the first place I ever came to ski
in the U.S.A., which is probably the same as a lot of other people," he
says. "It was my opportunity to learn how to ski and get back into the
In 1984, NSCD brought on board Paul DiBello, four-time world disabled
ski racing champion, to begin a program that would train skiers for the
highest levels of competition. "It’s natural that we would have a competition
program," explains DiBello. "Our recreation program is the best and largest
in the world, so it follows suit that the reputation we have here would
carry over to our competition program. Just the fact that we offer a structured
program where other areas might have a hit or miss situation lends us
a lot of credibility."
As do DiBello’s results. Over the past 10 years, up to 75 percent of the
U.S. Disabled Ski Team has trained with NSCD coaches in Winter Park. At
the 1998 Paralympics in Nagano, Japan, NSCD-trained athletes from around
the world earned 13 medals in alpine events. "I try not to think of our
guys as really being anything more than just a skier," says coach Kevin
Jardine. "I try to encourage them all to be competitive as a skier, not
necessarily as a disabled skier." In 1990, NSCD and Winter Park Resort
won a bid to host the World Disabled Ski Championships. Twenty-three countries
brought more than 225 athletes and coaches to compete in Winter Park.
"Disabled ski racing has become much more excepted," says DiBello. "It's
no longer an oddity. These are legitimate athletes competing at a legitimate
"I'm so proud of how far adaptive skiing and NSCD have come in the past
30 years," says O'Leary. "I remember operating the program out of a broom
closet in the early days. Today, we have our own adaptive equipment lab.
"There's interest in adaptive skiing all over the world. We’ve been to
South America, Europe, Japan. In November, we're going to the Republic
of Georgia. The interest is out there because this is such a dynamic sport
that really has the capability to change the way people see themselves.
And we hope to facilitate that here at NSCD for another 30 years."
INTERESTED IN SKIING?
Basic adaptive skiing methods and equipment:
THREE-TRACK: Individuals use one ski and two outriggers, which are forearm
crutches with ski tips mounted to the bases. Primarily used by people
who have one stronger leg. Disabilities might include leg amputations,
post-polio or trauma that affects primarily one leg.
FOUR-TRACK: Individuals use two skis and outriggers or a walker. A metal
Aski bra @ or a bungee cord between skis often gives more control to feet
and legs. Outriggers and walkers help people with lack of lateral control;
inability to walk without assistance of crutches, cane, etc.; tendency
to fall forward, walk on toes or lean heavily on crutches or walker; or
pronounced backward lean. Disabilities might include cerebral palsy, post
polio, spina bifida, arthrogryposis, muscular dystrophy, multiple sclerosis,
congenital defect or traumatic injury.
BI-SKI: Individuals ski in a rigid seat mounted to two asymmetrically
cut skis. Some students use hand-held outriggers, while others ski with
fixed outriggers attached to the bi-ski. This equipment provides greater
stability than a mono-ski and is used by people who use wheelchairs or
ambulate with difficulty using crutches, canes or walkers. Disabilities
might include cerebral palsy, brain injuries, multiple sclerosis, muscular
dystrophy, spina bifida, spinal cord injury, multiple amputations
MONO-SKI: Individuals sit in a molded seat that is mounted to a single
ski and use hand-held outriggers. The mono-ski is the most difficult sit-down
equipment to use because it requires the greatest balance and strength.
It is designed for people with double amputations and spinal cord injuries.
Other disabilities might include spina bifida, multiple sclerosis, muscular
dystrophy and cerebral palsy.
VISUAL IMPAIRMENT: Most students learn to ski auditorially with a guide
who uses talk and touch to replace the function of vision. People with
visual impairments are capable of being taught to ski in a very short
period of time and can become very proficient and capable of skiing moderate
to difficult terrain, including moguls. Their equipment is the same as
equipment for able-bodied skiers. Albinism, cataracts, diabetic retinopathy,
congenital eye defects, brain injury and glaucoma may contribute to visual
If you can't travel to Colorado to visit the National Sports Center for
the Disabled, take heart. Many ski resorts operate on U.S. Forest Service
land and are required to have accessible programming. Ask about discounted
lift tickets for customers with a disability. How do you know you're dealing
with a quality adaptive program?
ASK THESE QUESTIONS:
1. Are the instructors certified by Professional Ski Instructors of America
or does the program have a PSIA-certified staff member in charge of training?
2. Will you receive a personal evaluation to assess your goals and adaptive
3. What type of ski equipment does the program provide? How old is it?
Will they rent equipment without a lesson? Can you take equipment off-site?
4. How accessible are buildings and slopes? Do they have heated or regularly
maintained ramps? How far are buildings from parking? Is the shuttle system
5. How long has the program been in business?
6. Will the program give references?
7. Will instructors take time to speak with your doctor or therapist?
National Sports Center for the Disabled
633 17th St. No. 24
Denver, CO 80202
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