Atmosphere

Slippery Slopes

Colorado's adaptive ski programs can't keep up with burgeoning demand.
By
November 2009

Every Tuesday, 28-year-old Jessica Bailey wakes at 7:30 a.m., heads about 150 miles from the Eastern Plains town of Calhan to Winter Park, and hits the slopes for three hours. But Bailey isn't the typical skier—she has cerebral palsy and is unable to speak. Each week she abandons her wheelchair and rides down the slopes on her custom-designed sit-ski—a support frame around two skis—with the help of one volunteer who controls the sit-ski's movements from behind and another who glides alongside Bailey.

Bailey is part of a growing population of disabled skiers—including young veterans returning from Afghanistan and Iraq—who take advantage of programs and technological advancements that make Nordic and downhill skiing safer and more accessible. But the flurry of lesson applications has overwhelmed already shorthanded programs. At Winter Park, demand for ski and snowboard lessons through the National Sports Center for the Disabled rose nine percent last year, while the number of Eldora Special Recreation Program adaptive ski lessons jumped 20 percent. "We've had to turn people away because of a lack of both equipment and volunteers," says Eldora program director Barbara Kish. "We do want to accommodate more people, because the benefit is huge, but safety is our number one concern."

Adaptive athletes need assistance from as many as three people during a half-day lesson. Off the slopes, volunteers fill a variety of roles, from transporting students to and from ski lifts to doling out equipment. Without the crucial support of these volunteers, programs may be forced to limit their services even more—last season alone, Eldora Special Recreation Program turned down 86 lesson applications because it did not have enough volunteers to meet demand.

For skiers like Bailey, missing even one session is unthinkable. She's been a regular at Winter Park since she was eight, and over time the volunteers have become her second family. Her ski experience—and the adrenaline rush—lasts long after she's done zigzagging down the mountain. "She loves the thrill, and it makes her feel confident," says her mother, Ellen Bailey. "It's important for her to feel like she can do something anyone else can."

How to get involved

Volunteer
Since 1975, the Eldora Special Recreation Program has relied on the commitment of volunteers to handle everything from equipment maintenance to paper pushing. Sign up to provide behind-the-scenes assistance. 303-442-0606, www.esrp.com

Instruct
Volunteers spent nearly 7,000 hours helping patients with physical disabilities in the Children's Hospital Sports Program last season. The program's biggest need is instructors, so use your slope skills to teach youngsters the basics, from proper positioning to stopping. 720-777-6590, www.thechildrenshospital.org

Encourage
At the Breckenridge Outdoor Education Center's Adaptive Ski and Ride School, intermediate skiers and snowboarders can help instructors assess abilities and motivate students to tackle a new run or master a different technique. 970-453-5633, www.boec.org

Donate
National Sports Center for the Disabled relies on gifts, grants, and sponsorships to fund more than 80 percent of its budget. Give financial support to help cover costs like providing scholarships for the Sponsor An Athlete program. 303-293-5314, www.nscd.org