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Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Ski Season Ends

Last week I was able to ski twice. I wanted to end the season on a high note and made arrangements to ski with New England Disabled Sports at Loon Mountain and Vermont Adaptive Ski and Sports at Pico Mountain. I was able to ski with my favorite instructors who are not only gifted teachers but fine human beings. Over the last few days I have thought about how the ski season went for me in terms of my development and the larger implications of adaptive skiing. I am happy to report I have found the correct rig for my use. I have enjoyed success using a bi ski this season. In January I was not an independent skier. Today, aside from getting on and off the lift, I can ski independently. Depending on the conditions, I can ski on beginner or intermediate terrain. I am proud of my progress and look forward to next year. I want to improve my skills and work on getting on and off the lift with my son and bother in law.

Over the last few days my son and I have talked about how much fun we have had on and off the slopes. In my son's estimation seeing me ski is cool and I have earned a measure of respect. This is not easy to accomplish given the fact my son is a teenager and has an answer for every problem known to man. As for me, I regret that I began skiing in my late 40s. I played wheelchair basketball in college but was never really serious about the game. Last night I was restless and took out a big file of articles about the history of adaptive sports. I read a few articles about the origins of adaptive skiing and feel better. When I was first paralyzed adaptive skiing was in its infancy. For those unfamiliar with adaptive skiing, the sport began in 1942 in Europe. Franz Wendel was the first disabled person to "crutch ski". During World War II Wendel had a leg amputated and by the end of the 1940s he was giving demonstrations about how amputees could ski with crutches--what are called riggers today. Word of Wendel's skiing spread to the United States and elsewhere and in the late 1950s an Austrian adaptive ski school was formed.

Adaptive skiing did not really come of age until the 1980s. In large part, the Vietnam War was responsible for creating a large population of disabled veterans that had much different post disability expectations. These men began a new era in adaptive skiing. People like Doug Pringle, president of Disabled Sports USA Far West, invented some of the earliest equipment. Pringle and other veterans trained a generation of adaptive skiers, many of whom are now teaching a second generation of people with disabilities. The 1980s witnessed the greatest growth and experimentation in adaptive skiing. Adaptive skis circa 1980, and sit skis in particular, were very primitive devices. In fact sit skis were little more than sleds and do not resemble the rigs seen today. Ski resorts were not interested in drawing adaptive skiers to the slopes. People with adaptive skis were often not permitted to use the lifts and were pulled up the mountain by ski instructors. Yet within a decade adaptive programs were being established all over the country. The largest program, Breckenridge Outdoor Education Center, is a good example. The downhill program began in 1981 and by 1985 it hosted the first National Handicap Ski Championship where the first modern mono ski was tested. The 1990s witness robust national and international development. Ski resorts began to host adaptive ski programs and chair lift protocols were established.

The above history has led me to conclude I did not miss out on too much adaptive skiing. I missed a fascinating era of experimentation and the establishment of sit skis in use today. Adaptive sit skiers such as myself now have two choices--they can use a mono ski, the Ferrari on the slopes or a bi ski (a small niche market exists for a dual ski). The rig I use, Enabling Technology's bi ski, does not possess a "cool" factor but is the rig that works best for me given my age and high level of paralysis. Reading about the history of adaptive skiing made me aware that I am able to ski because of the paralyzed people that came before me. These people were trail blazers that created an industry and helped form hundreds of non profit groups that currently teach people such as myself how to ski, kayak, and become active in a myriad of other sports. Thus I and every other current adaptive skier owes much to Franz Wendel and other innovators that did not focus on what they could not do but rather what was possible. In some ways not much has changed. Too often people still think of the things a disabled person cannot do and this reinforces why adaptive sports are so important. When a person is participating in adaptive sports strangers do not see a disability and instead see another human being participating in a sport thereby forming a common bind.

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