My husband Charles and I assumed that the two women on monoskis would be ski “bunnies” with lots of time for interviews and photos. We looked down for a few seconds to clip into our skis and they were down the mountain like a couple of snowshoe hares! We caught up with them on their next run near the new adaptive ski center at Silver Creek of Snowshoe Mountain Resort. Both of these women had spinal cord injuries from auto accidents; one is now teaching the other.
Snowshoe is developing one of the largest and most modern adaptive wintersports programs in the Mid Atlantic. Another excellent adaptive program is at Wintergreen. Recently, Wintergreen hosted its second annual “Wounded Warriors Weekend” for over a half dozen returning heroes who have lost limbs. It was a tremendous success for the athletes and the volunteers.
The Snowshoe center is located near the ski schools in Silver Creek; a short ride from the main Snowshoe runs. It is housed in a beautiful new log cabin, donated by several industries and corporations in West Virginia and built with labor volunteered by contractors on other Snowshoe construction projects. Its director is David Begg, who has been working with adaptive sports for 25 years. He has lost a leg, and understands the problems, challenges, and joys of adaptive snowsports. As he told us, “You feel good about what you do, when you go home at night.” He proudly displays a trophy on his desk for carrying the Olympic torch on its way to Salt Lake City in 2002.
The mission statement of the program is “to improve the quality of life for persons with disabilities through outdoor sports and recreation.” Dave says they conduct about 400 lessons a year, with about 45 instructors. Most are volunteers. No insurance or governmental programs pay for the special, expensive ski equipment, so people must buy or rent their own. Private and corporate donations are essential for these programs.
We met a fascinating group of people during the short time we were there. They included Aaron Preece, a “typical teenager” -; sharp, fearless, and ready to push the edge! He is “exceptional” not for his blindness, but for his 4.0 average in school (he jokes it is 4.2 when he wears glasses). This was only his fourth time skiing. In addition to skiing, he also swims and wrestles. And I hyperventilate if my glasses get a little wet! His instructor was Robert Martin, a terrific volunteer who commands the authority and professionalism of his former Army career. He tells Aaron when to turn, when to prepare for a big hill, and when to stop. No bells or whistles are used; just verbal commands. When I rode the lift with Aaron, we both held his hands to get on and off. Aaron used ordinary skis with hooks on the front, to keep a snowplow stance. That looks scary to me. But, the hooks will soon come off. Neither he nor the instructor used poles. Another volunteer with Aaron was Chris Garrett. Chris is part of a remarkable family; they are all involved in adaptive skiing. That began when their beautiful sister Brandi had a near-fatal car accident in her native La Plata, Md. Now she is probably the fastest skier on one snow at Snowshoe! Her body sways with great grace and agility. In addition to being an instructor she could be a contender for the US Paralympics if she wants.
The other sit skier on the mountain that day was Pat Broderick, a judge with paralysis below chest level. She is brave and determined to use a monoski, generally considered impossible for that type of injury. She tells us, “My injury is at the t-1 level, so it is quite high. I don’t get to ski that much each year, so between the level of the injury and the lack of ski time, there is a lot of re-learning each year.” Pat adds, “For me, skiing, besides being a source of great joy, is a daily test of how to deal with fear, one turn at a time, as I am frequently terrified. It is a great thrill when you ski through the fear, but some days you just don’t. It also is good to be outside, feel small against the mountain, and remember one’s relative place in the world. The adaptive school really makes all those experiences possible. It is just a really positive, can-do type of place. And, when you are not skiing, the instructors are just neat people to hang out with, in the ski school.”
For us, this is a start - we hope to spend much more time working with the adaptive programs. They are growing, as more amputees come from service in Iraq and Afghanistan. Other skiers were born with disabilities, but thanks to these adaptive programs they can enjoy recreational snowsports or compete as athletes if they wish. So, learn from and about adaptive skiers, when you see them on the mountain. Maybe they will let you join them - you will grow from the experience.
When she wasn't skiing, Connie Lawn covered the White House as a reporter since 1968.