The anticipation while gearing up, arriving at the peak of the mountain, and the feeling of gliding across snow is something many of us dream of during winter. For someone who has a disability, it can seem out of reach, but it turns it out it can be easier than you think. We’ve been making great strides in getting everyone out on the snow. Here’s a brief glimpse into the world of adaptive snow sports in West Virginia.
Adaptive Assisted Sports
The organization Challenged Athletes of West Virginia (CAWV) was founded in 1996 to provide adaptive sports opportunities to children and adults with physical and cognitive disabilities. Covering the entire Mid-Atlantic region, CAWV has staff and equipment for adaptive skiing and snowboarding, handcycling, adaptive bicycling, whitewater rafting, and camping. The highly skilled staff can assist adults and children that have a wide range of exceptionalities, including: developmental, cognitive, and behavioral disabilities; neuromuscular disabilities; visual and auditory impairment; and spinal cord injury and amputation.
In snow sports, the equipment options can range from basic guidance tools like bamboo sticks and tethers to complex devices like outrigger skis and seated ski rigs. Bamboo sticks are shared between the instructor and students who have the strength and ability to stand and learn to make turns but need guidance. This style of adaptive instruction works well for someone who is visually impaired, has a cognitive or behavioral disability, or has some neuromuscular disability. This allows the student optimal independence while keeping the instructor close for immediate corrections.
Tethers are long pieces of webbing connecting the instructor to the student, providing the instructor with control for turn shapes and, more importantly, the power to stop. Tethers can be attached to a standing or seated student. The link between instructor and student is more than just a physical one, creating a dynamic and rewarding connection as both learn a rhythm of gliding and turning together.
2, 3, & 4 Track
The 2 Track is designed for any skier who can stand on both feet but may need outriggers for balance. Applicable to persons with visual and hearing impairment and those with developmental and cognitive disabilities. The 3 and 4 Track is designed for skiers who can stand upright but may need additional support to remain balanced (outriggers). Best for students with leg amputation, cerebral palsy, arthritis, spina bifida, or traumatic brain injury (TBI).
Bi-Ski & Mono-Ski
These rigs are designed for skiers with significant lower extremity or trunk weakness and those with difficulty standing or balancing. Skiers are seated on a device attached to one or two skis that allows those with severe balance impairment to experience the fun of skiing.
Families and individuals interested in exploring all that adaptive equipment has to offer can visit multiple ski resorts in West Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania and Virginia for adaptive services: Snowshoe, Timberline, Canaan Valley, Wisp, and Winterplace.
Canaan Valley local Chris Ujvagi’s interest in adaptive skiing began in the late 1990s when Carrie Hawkins invited Chris, a ski instructor at the time, to assist with the Romney School for the Deaf and Blind youth group. Supported by the Lions Club of West Virginia, the Romney School has been taking students on ski trips for over 30 years. “I got out of the lesson as much or more as I was able to give,” Ujvagi said. “They were patient with me and I was patient with them.”
Chris committed more time to the art of adaptive snow sports while apprenticing with Greg Bear, who was Adaptive Director of Timberline Resort at the time. They worked to modify stand-up outriggers originally designed for military veterans. The Timberline Adaptive Program was an original vision of John Lutz, who was well ahead of his time when he founded BOLD – Blind Outdoor Leadership Development in the 1970s. Chris still relies on these mentors as he oversees the Challenged Athletes of WV Timberline Chapter, which facilitated over 100 adaptive lessons last winter.
Chris’s advice to anyone thinking of volunteering to instruct adaptive lessons highlights the reciprocation involved in the process. “As much work as you give to the students, they will give back to you in scope of patience, learning styles, and gumption,” Ujvagi said. “They don’t make excuses, they’re creative, and, more importantly, determined. Come into this role open minded; you can’t be the one to solve all the problems. You have to listen as they become your partner to figure out an obstacle together.”
I have also spent many winters assisting with adaptive ski lessons. The most memorable work was assisting my friend Eric Thompson as he prepared for his first downhill sit-ski run after an accident left his lower body paralyzed. Eric has been extremely determined and aggressive to recover his independence. Eric has been busy travelling around the U.S. while building a campaign called WV On the Go to improve commercial building accessibility. Thompson’s program can be found on Facebook under the same name.
I was inspired by the resourcefulness Eric brought to his first downhill sit-ski experience, including the placement of lower back padding; positioning and taping his ankles; and proper layers of clothing. After an instructional demonstration by Warren Wik, Eric was assisted into the sit-ski, and we reviewed the upper body movements needed to get proper response from the the mono-ski to respond under his body. By the end of the afternoon, Eric was cruising wide turns independently. The video still gives me chills. You can find the video and other photos of lessons on Facebook by searching “CAWV at Timberline.”
Working and volunteering with adaptive sports can be incredibly rewarding, often times resulting from the partnerships created and successes achieved when someone acquires a new level of independence. I encourage everyone to explore ways to volunteer; you will find the rewards heavily outweigh the work.
Lastly, I’d like to officially thank all those who work hard to assist our population with disabilities. If you or someone you know could benefit from the services of adaptive programming, please reach out to the Challenged Athletes of West Virginia or one of the resorts included in this article to get started.
Melanie Seiler Hames is executive director of Active Southern West Virginia, and has been a PSIA-certified ski instructor for 20 years and a member of the National Ski Patrol for seven years. She enjoys all things backcountry skiing in West Virginia.