There's a sea of wheelchairs on the snow between the lodge and the slopes. Crutches hang on the racks next to ski poles. Artificial limbs are strewn in the snow like the unnecessary encumberments of an evolving species soaring into high-speed flight after an earthbound lifetime.
The best way to capture the spirit of the Hartford Ski Spectacular is to spend a day participating with the 700 adaptive skiers in the premier event offered by Disabled Sports USA. The week of activities and events on the slopes at Breckenridge is "a gathering of the clan," according to executive director Kirk M. Bauer. People come to learn to ski, to race, to benefit from recreational therapy, to learn instructing skills, to reunite with old friends and to have an adrenaline-fueled week in which skiers of all abilities can ride the force of gravity.
Built for speed
Leland Foster can't wait to get on the mountain. Foster has cerebral palsy. It takes a visible effort to carry on a conversation, and he needs help fighting his way into two layers of gloves, getting his ski pass on and getting his ski mask, helmet and goggles carefully positioned. Finally, he sits on the special ski, strapped in snugly with four straps leaving him immobile except for his arms.
"I use what's called a bi-ski," Foster explained of his adaptive equipment. "Two skis operate independently. I'm four or five inches above the snow, so I have a real low center of gravity, so I don't tip over easily. I can use my body to lean and turn the ski. I use outriggers; they look like crutches, but instead of crutch tips, they have ski tips."
Foster is 36 years old, a mechanical engineering student in Fairborn, Ohio. He started skiing 12 years ago with a DSUSA chapter called Three-Trackers of Ohio. He's been coming to Breckenridge for seven years, achieving legendary status both for his determination on the mountain and for his uncanny ability to surround himself with beautiful women on the slopes and in the bars. He confessed that "getting over the fear of riding the ski lift" was the biggest challenge. "It's kind of scary to be suspended up there in the air. As far as the skiing, it was a blast from the beginning."
Our day on the slopes begins with an unexpected challenge when the chairlift at the bottom of the slope goes out of commission. Instructor Al Freeman, from Loon Mountain in New Hampshire, decides to push Foster up the mountain, much to the amazement of Breckenridge Outdoor Education Center instructor Stacy Jewel, who trades shifts with Freeman, huffing and puffing up the slope. Halfway up, we hitch a ride on a palma lift. Freeman straddles Foster's bi-ski from behind, guiding him up the mountain while hanging on to the bar from the lift. The palma lift leads us to a chairlift, and the four of us are soon at the top of Peak 9, ready to test the new snow.
Foster controls himself by shifting his weight on the bi-skis and guiding himself with an outrigger in each hand. He is connected to a backup tether, allowing Freeman or Jewel an easy way to stop him if he loses control. Foster never loses control, but he pushes his speed to the limit as he carves his way down the mountain, tumbling a couple times as he takes too sharp a turn to avoid a reckless skier, then waiting, strapped in his ski like an upended turtle, for someone to flip him back on his boards.
It takes a run or two for the instructors to learn Foster's skill level, giving him the room to do what he is capable of without extraneous assistance.
DSUSA was started 32 years ago by Doug Pringle, a Vietnam veteran who lost his leg in the war. Pringle now serves as president of the organization alongside Bauer, who also lost a leg in Vietnam. "Fortunately, we have opposite legs, so we can split a pair of skis," Pringle joked.
"When you suffer a physical trauma, there's both an emotional, psychological devastation and destruction of the ego, and there's a physical side," Bauer explained. "There's a rebuilding process that has to go on. We use physical sport as that tool of rehabilitation."
"Skiing is one of the most adaptive sports ever," Bauer continued. "I tell people if you can still breathe, if you're still warm, you can ski ... with the help of gravity and adaptive equipment and the adaptive teaching techniques."
Many of those who learn adaptive skiing are serious athletes who go on to pursue competitive goals, setting their sights on the U.S. Disabled Ski Team and, ultimately, the World Cup. The Disabled World Cup was held at Breckenridge concurrent with the Ski Spectacular, filling the mountain with top athletes and offering upcoming skiers a glimpse of the sport's pinnacle.
"The most important component is the continuing education," Bauer confirmed, noting the instructors from all over the country learning new adaptive teaching techniques. "We can teach Johnny to ski. But if we can teach one instructor, they can teach 10 Johnnys in Boston."
Bauer cited "critical integration" as the ultimate aim. "Our real goals are to phase all of these programs into the non-disabled structure. ... We want to see the elite athletes integrated with and associated with the national governing body of the sport. We want to see that disabled people have the opportunity in their own environment to participate in sports and recreation activities. We want as many instructors as possible to be trained in the adaptive ski techniques. "
"I'm an ex-rock climber, an adrenaline junkie," explained Glenn Rosenberg, who's been coming to Breckenridge for more than a decade to feed his appetite for adventure. "After I broke my back [20 years ago], I found it very difficult to get that satisfaction. I played wheelchair basketball. But the only thing that really seems to get me back on that edge is going really fast."
"In the late '80s, I started coming up here to ski with BOEC, and I got hooked right away," Rosenberg recalled. "I've been skiing every year since."
Roughly 1,000 skiers a year pass through the BOEC Adaptive Ski Program, and as one of the leading programs among the 86 DSUSA affiliates, BOEC is host for the Ski Spectacular, providing instructors, equipment and lodging. Program director Gene Gamber asserted: "Everyone would like to see the recognition of people with special needs as a viable part of our society. We need to address that. The problem a lot of the time is finding the resources."
Many participants use Ski Spectacular as an opportunity to test new equipment, using $2,000 mono-skis (the cheapest available) free of charge. Rosenberg recalls the horrendous equipment he learned on a decade ago. There was little hope of controlling the fiberglass shell with metal runners underneath -- "high-tech sledding," Gamber called it. All he could do was bomb down the slopes and hope whoever was aiding him could leap into his path for a "Superman stop."
While BOEC instructors are all competent in the new adaptive equipment, Gamber stressed that the basics are the same for all skiers. "Good skiing is good skiing. Gravity, centrifugal force, and angulation. The ability to pressure the ski, steer the ski, edge the ski and balance the ski, that's about it."
For the local chapter of Disabled Sports USA, contact Visually Impaired and Blind Skiers at 535-8134.