If Oscar Pistorius taught us anything at the summer Olympics it was that some people with physical disabilities don’t let the loss of their legs — or other limbs or senses — keep them from achieving lofty physical goals. While the “Blade Runner” created controversy, as many contended that the blade-like appendages that Pistorius used to run gave him a competitive edge, others were inspired by his drive, spirit and athletic prowess.
If nothing else, Pistorius demonstrated that achieving the status of an elite athlete is not something reserved for the able-bodied population. And as the ski and snowboarding season is gearing up, people of all levels and abilities will be heading into the high country — some purely for recreation and the sense of freedom that an open mountain can provide, whether impaired or not. But some are heading to the high country to kick some serious butt.
“I can ski just as well and even better than most of my able-bodied friends,” says Joel Berman, who is an above-knee amputee and the executive director of Adaptive Adventures, a Boulder-based adaptive sports program. “Skiing really levels the playing field.”
Berman, who lost his leg in 1984 while working on a railroad, says he didn’t ski much before his accident. He began skiing after a friend suggested skiing was a great thing to do on one leg and for people with many kinds of disabilities.
“For people with disabilities, life slows down as mobility becomes a major issue,” Berman says. “But skiing is the one sport where the goal is oftentimes not to go faster, but to figure out how to slow down and stop. It’s great because it really does allow people with physical disabilities to participate on an equal level with their able-bodied peers.”
Berman, who became an expert skier and founded Adaptive Adventures in 1999, says that although Adaptive Adventures caters to people of all levels and abilities, unlike many other programs, Adaptive Adventures focuses on helping athletes push themselves to the next level.
“There were and are a lot of great adaptive programs out there, but as an adaptive skier I got better, but saw that the opportunities and experiences were not growing with me,” Berman says. “That’s why we developed a program that taught advanced skiing and technique. We create a chance for athletes to push themselves to be as good as they can be.”
Although Adaptive Adventures aspires to help disabled athletes reach their highest potential, Berman and others in the industry recognize that high performance or competitive skiing and snowboarding is not for everyone. Adaptive Adventures, among many programs along the Front Range, caters to people of all levels, ages, abilities and interest. And, regardless of ability, volunteers and support staff say that the great joy is the experience of witnessing someone achieve goals and a sense of freedom that they might have thought was lost.
“I found what a powerful experience it was. It just blew all other volunteer jobs I’d had away,” says Phil Nugent, who volunteered for and sits on the board of Ignite, a ski and snowboarding adaptive program based at Eldora Mountain Resort. “I worked with one man who it took some coaching to get up the mountain. By afternoon, he got down the mountain and let out a yell like he was at a rock show.
“You see examples like this, of this courage, all the time, and it just fills you with a great feeling,” Nugent continues. “For a lot of students, Ignite is the highlight of their week or month. For many, it might be the highlight of their lives.”
Ignite offers alpine, bi/mono (sit skiing), Nordic, snowboarding and a veteran’s program, and provided more than 1,100 lessons last season to people with disabilities ranging from loss of limbs due to recent accidents to people who have been blind their entire lives.
An Ignite skier at Eldora | Photo courtesy of John Humbrecht
“The vision-impaired are our biggest student population,” says John Humbrecht, the technical director for Ignite. Humbrecht explains that some students have recently lost or are losing their vision, while others have been blind since birth. He also says that working with a man who has been blind his entire life has been one of his most interesting and wild experiences as an instructor.
“This guy is amazing,” says Humbrecht. “He’s been blind since birth and skis double blacks and these giant bumps and the only communication he gets is by radio. I just tell him what the terrain is like, when to go and when to stop.”
Other vision-impaired students have an instructor ski in tandem with them, turn for turn. More advanced students with limited or no eyesight have someone ski in front of them. No verbal communication is exchanged — these skiers know where to turn based on listening to the sound of their leader’s skis.
“It’s totally incredible,” says Humbrecht. “Their other senses are so heightened, and being on the mountain gives them incredible freedom.”
Humbrecht explains that they also see a lot of students with spinal cord injuries, including people recently injured in auto accidents and soldiers returning from Afghanistan who typically can no longer walk, and many who do not have use of their arms, either.
“These are the people we get into the sit skis,” says Humbrecht. “For some, it’s a challenge, but once they get out there, they realize that they can go anywhere. There is nothing to stop them. It’s the ultimate freedom because there are no limits on the way down.”
Whether it’s in competitive or high-performance sports or a leisure activity that provides community interaction, recreation provides people of all abilities and levels with the opportunity to lead healthier lives, says Jennifer Heilveil, program coordinator for the City of Boulder’s EXPAND (Exciting Programs, Adventures and New Dimensions) program. EXPAND is run through Parks and Recreation, focuses on a variety of adaptive sports and offers support to anyone wanting to be included in general recreation programs, such as yoga or pottery.
“I think that living a quality life includes being healthy and to feel welcomed in one’s community, whether it’s sports or leisure, and EXPAND is here to help guide people,” says Heilveil, a certified recreation therapist who worked at the Paralympics in Greece. “I have seen what sports can do for someone with a physical disability. It’s life-changing.”
And, for many, what’s life-changing includes learning how to kick some butt on the mountain.
“There is a joke that some of us have with skiing,” Berman says of adaptive skiers. “It’s usually the able-bodied guy that’s holding you back.”