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Monday, January 26, 2009

X Games: Mono Skiers as a Tease

What an awesome weekend I had. My son, his friends, and mine skied Saturday at Sugarbush Resort, Vermont. My son was thrilled because he skied tree trails and Mt. Ellen's black diamond slope FIS. I was happy because I got to ski with my favorite volunteer who donates her time to Vermont Adaptive Ski and Sport. I am well on my way to being an independent skier and have found the bi-ski to be the ideal rig for me. Although the correct equipment is critically important, I have found two programs, Vermont Adaptive and New England Disabled Sports at Loon Mountain, that are very different but outstanding. I will be an independent skier because I have connected with expert volunteers in Vermont and New Hampshire who have made skiing fun, improved the quality of my life, and enhanced the relationship I have with my son. In fact, I have made so much progress my son is impressed. Believe, me it takes a lot for a parent to impress his teenager!

On our drive home we each looked forward to watching the Winter X Games 13. As one would expect, our favorite event is the mono ski competition. The X Games attracts the top mono skiers in the United States and abroad. The mono ski race is intense and the athletes possess world class skills. Introduced in 2005, in 2007 the mono ski race became a medal event. This represented great progress but what separates the mono ski event from all other adaptive sports is its broad appeal. In 2008 I saw the X Games mono ski race in a New Hampshire bar replete with large flat screen TVs. I was amazed to watch not only the mono skiers but the intense interest of other people watching the X Games. The mono ski race captured the interest of every person in the bar. l recall being amazed by a huge roar when the gold medal winner KJ Van Der Klooster soared over the last jump to win the race. I wondered then if the X Games and the mono ski race could be the first adaptive event to grab and hold a wide audience. Based on my television viewing experience yesterday, the answer is an overwhelming yes.

The X Games were broadcast on ESPN between 2PM and 6PM. ESPN is part of most basic cable TV packages and widely watched by men 18 to 45 years old. We got home at 4PM and turned on the X Games. I expected the mono ski event to sandwiched between more popular events and relegated to second class status. Much to my amazement, the mono ski event was used as a teaser. The mono ski gold medal final was being used to keep viewers glued to their television sets! The mono ski event was the grand finale of the afternoon broadcast. This was a first, adaptive athletes being placed in the spot light. The announcers were excited, quick clips of the qualifying round replayed many times, the scroll at the bottom of the screen listed the athletes in the gold medal race. My son and I looked at one another and each of us felt this focus was unprecedented--the mono ski race was the center piece of a mainstream broadcast. Sadly, the gold medal race was not nearly as exciting as the qualifying races. The 2007 gold medal winner, Tyler Walker, easily won the race yesterday. Like other gold medal race winners, Walker was interviewed after the race. Not a single question related to Walker's disability. The focus was solely on his racing career, recent wins in Europe, and the gold medal race. On the ESPN website, the most popular video clip from the X Games, Winter X 13 Rollout, feature the gold medal mono ski race along with other popular events. A glance at newspapers in Vail where the X Games were held all have stories about the mono ski race. Local papers where the mono ski athletes live all had feature articles on the race.

The surging popularity of the mono ski race is having a direct impact on ski resorts. Most resorts welcome adaptive athletes and adaptive programs are rapidly expanding. While I will never be confused with a world class skier, I have noted this year that I am far from alone on the slopes. Adaptive skiers seem to be more common place. Skiers without a disability think mono skiing and the bi-ski I use are cool. In fact, I had an interesting conversation with a snow boarder who was interested in the difference between the bi-ski and mono ski. He instantly appreciated the fact bi-skiers do not posses the same elite or cool status as mono skiers. He compared this to the rivalry between skiing and snowboarding. What was of interest to me after this discussion was that my physical disability was never mentioned, not even in passing. The focus was on ski gear, how cold it was, and the condition of the slopes.

I am particularly encouraged by the coverage of the X Games and the mono ski race because it has transcended archetypical mainstream media coverage of an adaptive sporting event. In spite of how happy I am with the coverage of the X Games mono ski race, adaptive athletes face daunting problems. Foremost among them is the cost of adaptive equipment. The cost of adaptive ski equipment is so costly it hampers small programs such as Vermont Adaptive that is dedicated to getting people with disabilities out on the slopes. A bi-ski, mono ski, and dual ski, the three most common sit skis, cost between $2,500 and $4,000. A set of riggers a sit skier uses costs an additional $375. Think about this: when I go into Sugarbush Vermont Adaptive office I see 30 pairs of riggers hanging on the wall. That adds up to about $11,000 alone. For an average person such as myself, a bi-ski and riggers would cost $3,000. I would then need a season pass and winter warm weather gear none of which is cheap. The significant cost involved in adaptive skiing affects affects elite adaptive skiers as well. For instance, Kevin Bramble, a two time Paralympic gold medal winner, designer of a leading mono ski (KBG design), and leading figure in mono skiing did not medal at the X Games. Bramble had hoped to use possible X Games prize money to train at Lake Tahoe in order to practice for the Paralympic qualifier. Elite mono skiers such as Bramble lack corporate sponsors and because he did not win will return home rather than train. This is hardly a new story for adaptive athletes. It is also why the X Games have the potential to change the way adaptive athletes train and are perceived by the public. With public interest, corporations will seek out athletes such as Bramble and others because they have broad appeal. If and when this happens there will be a trickle down effect. Ordinary skiers will expect to see adaptive skiers on the slopes. Resorts will expand adaptive ski programs and create local mono ski races. Hopefully as more sit skis are manufactured the cost will decrease thus enabling more people with disabilities to ski. I hope this is more than wishful thinking in the after glow of a great weekend.


Wheelie Catholic said...

This is good news for adaptive sports. I didn't see the coverage but am happy to hear about it.

In the years I played wheelchair tennis, I also saw some NCAA scholarships given to college-age wheelchair tennis players and wheelchair basketball players. This has really raised the level of the sport and provided opportunities for many youngsters to compete, travel and train. The number of corporate sponsorships given to Paralympians were also higher this year - this is all good news.

So glad you had fun on your ski trip!

william Peace said...

Wheelie Catholic, This is indeed great news for adaptive sports. The Paralympics have gained some parity but this has been painfully slow and broadcasts are virtually impossible to find. I find this slow growth very frustrating. Perhaps this is why I think the X Games mono ski race has tremendous potential. In just two years it is increasingly popular and now on par with other X Games events. This is stunningly fast progress. ESPN and the athletes should be commended.

FridaWrites said...

I wouldn't mind trying adaptive skiing sometime. What's the fall/injury risk (fragile bones for me, so not sure if I can--depends on stability)?

Sounds like a great weekend, and I am also enthused about the media coverage.

william Peace said...

Frida, Like you, my first questions about skiing were safety related. As a paraplegic, I simply cannot function with an injured arm. Based on my experience, people with a disability that get injured skiing are daredevils or have pushed themselves too hard. Every adaptive program I have been to stresses safety first and foremost. I would strongly encourage you to give skiing a try. All adaptive programs have a sliding pay scale and some even do not charge people a dime who have never skied before. It is a great outdoor activity as getting out in the winter can be problematic.

FridaWrites said...

I can't travel this winter but may be able to do so next Christmas--it would be a lot of fun. Plus I'd like the kids to learn to ski as well. Thanks for the further information--I feel less nervous about trying it.

william Peace said...

Frida, Please send me an email if you want to ski. I can certainly point you in the correct direction. I got into skiing for multiple reasons, one of them was to do a physical activity with my teenage son. Most adaptive programs encourage families to ski together. I really think you will enjoy skiing. Being nervous is normal and I assure you skiing is very safe.

maggieskis said...

Can I quickly point out that there are a couple foundations out there dedicated to getting adaptive equipment to athletes who are interested at little to no cost. The first is the Kelly Brush Foundation you can find out more at This foundation is for those with Spinal Cord Injury the other is the Challenged Athletes Foundation you can find more info at A lot of the equipment at adaptive sports programs is donated, for example local Rotarys, high schools, or grants will fund programs for equipment.

william Peace said...

Maggie, Adaptive programs and the two granting agencies you mention do indeed work very hard to make adaptive skiing as affordable as humanly possible. I would also note adaptive sport programs are dependent upon a large group of volunteers to teach disabled people how to ski. If I could change two things about adaptive sport programs it would be the following. 1. Pay program coordinators at adaptive programs a livable wage. 2. Lobby manufacturers of adaptive gear to lower the price of adaptive equipment. The point I am trying to stress is the biggest problem people with disabilities have accessing adaptive sports such as skiing is the social and physical obstacles they encounter daily. Adaptive sport programs I have participated in are almost like a safe haven or bubble of equality.