WINTERGREEN, Va. - Ski season is here, and with it comes the prickly touch of wind-blown snow, the swoosh of skis and the pounding surge of adrenaline. It happens every year at about this time, not only for millions of able-bodied skiers, but also for thousands of skiers with disabilities.
Through a combination of specialized equipment and training, people who might otherwise be left behind when friends and family take to the slopes can now join in the fun.
They're using special rail-like devices, ski-bottomed crutches and tethers to take part in what is known as adaptive skiing.
Their range of disabilities runs the gamut. They include blindness, deafness, amputations, para- and quadriplegia, autism, and other forms of injury, illness and cognitive defects that prevent people from skiing in the more traditional ways.
Adaptive skiing started in 1942 when an Austrian who'd lost his leg attached small skis to his crutches and resumed his favored pastime. The sport got a boost 25 years later when veterans of the U.S. Army's Tenth Mountain Division were organized to teach a group of disabled Vietnam vets how to ski.
Kirk Bauer, executive director of Disabled Sports USA, says adaptive skiing offers a "normalizing experience," adding that it's "an accessible sport that people with almost any disability can enjoy," right along side everyone else on the mountain. And he says that includes tackling the black diamonds, moguls and races at 60 mph.
Bauer estimates that 15 percent of ski resorts now have good adult disabled ski programs and that many also have special youth programs for disabled children.
In some cases, these programs lead to major athletic events. There are usually four big races a year - in December, January, February and March. The international Paralympic games being held this March in Italy also feature ski competitions.
If you go
TYPES OF ADAPTATIONS FOR DISABLED SKIERS:
Guides for blind skiers. The guides are considered "equipment" and there are generally no extra charges for them.
Two-track skis and snowboards. These are for any skier who stands on two skis but who might need tethers to aid in leg strength. These are good for people with visual and hearing impairment and for those with developmental and cognitive disabilities.
Three and four-track. These are for skiers who can stand on skis but need additional support to remain balanced. They are best for students with leg amputation, cerebral palsy, arthritis, spina bifida or a traumatic brain injury.
Bi-skis. These are for people with significant lower extremity or trunk weaknesses and for others with difficulty standing and balancing. It's a sit-down ski that lets even those with severe balance impairment experience the thrill of skiing.
BEFORE YOU GO: Call ahead to see what type of program the resort offers. Make sure that the instructors are certified to teach adaptive skiing, that the resort has the proper type of equipment and that the safety record is good. You may need reservations for the adaptive ski program. And check out what's available in handicapped-accessible lodging, restaurants and other amenities.
PRICES: Prices vary. The average for equipment rental, guide, lessons, and lift ticket is about $80. But many programs are free and others are heavily discounted.
FOR MORE INFORMATION: Check with some of the largest and most well-known ski resorts around the country. They are the most likely to offer the programs. There are also organizations, such as Adaptive Adventures, that specialize in year-round disabled sports and recreation, vacations, camps and clinics. Disabled veterans' groups, state disability offices and other special interest groups also have information. And don't forget Internet searches for "adaptive skiing," "handicapped sports" and "disabled winter sports," for instance.
"Adaptive skiing and snowboarding is an incredibly powerful therapeutic medium," said Michael Zuckerman, who runs the adaptive ski program at Wintergreen Resort in Wintergreen, Va., adding that the rewards are not only for the students and their families, but the instructors as well.
Zuckerman says Wintergreen has taught skiing to more than 650 people with disabilities since the first few in 1984. The program has become so popular he's had to add midweek sessions to accommodate the expanding number of disabled skiers.
Similar programs are also offered at Breckenridge and Winter Park, Co.; Killington, Vt.; Park City, Utah; Waterville Valley, N.H., and other resorts around the country.
You may see even more disabled skiers and boarders on these and other slopes this season because of the Wounded Warrior Project. It's a private initiative to provide sports rehabilitation programs for injured U.S. soldiers.
Former Army National Guard First Lt. Ed Salau, of Havelock, N.C., lost his left leg in Iraq in 2004. But he says after learning to ski, "I know I can still feel the wind in my face, work up a sweat and take on a challenge."
He first took on that challenge last January at a Wounded Warrior's Weekend at Wintergreen Resort. Salau says he was discouraged at first, but the instructor urged him to try just one more time.
"I went up in the ski lift," he said, "and as fate would have it I looked down in the snow and saw a blind skier." He said "reality set in" and he told himself "to stop whining." Now, he not only skis proficiently, but gives lessons.
Salau says an instructor told him something he'll always remember: "When you get to the top of the mountain all you see is possibility." He says until he reached the top, he didn't understand what that meant.
Wounded Warrior Weekends are scheduled at many of the resorts again this year.
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