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Sports for Everyone

Hal 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 OíLeary 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 OíLearyís 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 donít really hate you."

Thirty years later, OíLeary 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 centerís 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 OíLeary. "Over the past 30 years, itís really grown into a sport that everyone can participate in. The ski-down is to celebrate NSCDís 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 didnít 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 sisterís 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 couldnít skate. My leg was too weak and wouldnít 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 didnít ski I would make up a story about an Ďold football injury.í 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 Childrenís 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 itís 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. Thereís 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 Childrenís Hospital, have been with the program for more than 15 years. "Back in the early years, we didnít 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 wouldnít. Itís been amazing to see the evolution of ski equipment over the past 30 years. I think much of that can be attributed to Halís perseverance and creativity. In the early days, we taped rope between skis. We didnít 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 weíre better at skiing, weíre trying to better imitate the bodyís motion, like using shocks in mono-skis, or bicycle technology imitating the motion of the knee. Weíre 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 sport."

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. "Itís 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 DiBelloís 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. "Itís no longer an oddity. These are legitimate athletes competing at a legitimate level."

"Iím so proud of how far adaptive skiing and NSCD have come in the past 30 years," says OíLeary. "I remember operating the program out of a broom closet in the early days. Today, we have our own adaptive equipment lab. "Thereís interest in adaptive skiing all over the world. Weíve been to South America, Europe, Japan. In November, weíre 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."


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 impairment.

If you canít 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 youíre dealing with a quality adaptive program?


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 equipment needs?
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 accessible?
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
303-293-5448 fax