School for Skiers With Disabilities

Ten-year-old Allison Jones is going for the gold. She already has a box filled with ski racing medals and competes any chance she gets. The fact that she has only one leg doesn't stop her.

"I'm going to be world champion," Allison said with supreme confidence, aware of the admiration she wins from fellow skiers as she flies down the mountain on her specially adapted skis. She certainly left me in her wake one recent day. Her parents, she confided at the bottom, also ski much too slowly.

Allison, who lives in Colorado Springs, Colo., said she hopes to someday join the U.S. Disabled Ski Team, which competes around the world. Meanwhile, the skinny fifth-grader with a lopsided grin considers Winter Park a second home. She learned to ski here, at the National Sports Center for the Disabled, when she was 5. Now she is a proud member of the Winter Park Disabled Ski Team, the only year-round ski racing program for the disabled in the world.

Children with disabilities, Allison said, need to know that "learning to ski is going to be hard. But it's worth sticking with. It's adventurous and risky."

For disabled children and adults, skiing offers even more than that, said Hal O'Leary, who directs the center and was one of its founders. He believes it can change people's lives.

O'Leary has seen parents cry when they saw their youngsters skiing for the first time. "When you see this child with disabilities doing something that their siblings are doing, your attitude soars. You realize there's a future for this child."

The skiers themselves feel just as energized. Ask 25-year-old Brent Elisle, who learned to ski in the program as a teen-ager and later worked for the center as an intern and volunteer instructor. Now, while waiting to start graduate school, he's working on the mountain. "I can ski better than other people and that makes me feel good," Elisle says. "I can ski better than I can walk. Skiing helps you feel like you can do anything."

Beyond skiing, the center offers a range of action-packed summer programs, from mountain biking to rock climbing. (For information about the center or to sponsor a Center athlete for $400 a year, call 303-726-5514.)

This ski season, the Center for the Disabled--which is celebrating its 25th anniversary--will enroll 2,500 disabled skiers from all over the world in its programs, including children with severe learning disabilities and those born with birth defects, adults paralyzed in diving accidents or those who have lost arms or legs.

What started as a one-time effort to help a group of pediatric amputees from Denver enjoy the winter, has become the world's premier program for teaching disabled adults and children to ski. It's a model for programs around the country and abroad. The center even has a large workshop that provides adaptive equipment for 45 different disabilities--from those who ski sitting down to those who just need some extra help balancing.

"The Winter Park program helped legitimize skiing as a real sport for those with disabilities," said Ed Harrison, a spokesman for National Handicapped Sports, a nonprofit organization that promotes sports for the physically challenged. Harrison said there are now some 75 disabled skier programs around the country, from Maine to Colorado to California. (Call 301-217-0960 for a listing of winter and summer sports activities.)

The program commands a $2.5-million budget, a staff of 35, including 12 certified ski instructors, and a dedicated force of 1,000 trained volunteer instructors who donate 10 days a season to the program. A new group of young volunteers have just signed on: Local school kids who will help out the youngsters in the program.

"This has made a tremendous difference in Allison's life," said her mother, Diane Jones, a physical therapist who has served as a volunteer instructor for the program. "Here's a sport where she excels--where she can do better than me and her sister. And she meets people with disabilities far worse than she has. The skiing has helped her learn to focus and go after what she wants."

There's a less obvious benefit, too, for the more than one million adults and children who enjoy the Winter Park slopes every season: seeing Allison and other children with disabilities sends a powerful and positive message. And disabled skiers can revel in the fact that they are better athletes than many other skiers on the mountain.

On recent day, Vicky Bishop and her 13-year-old son Jeremy were getting ready to return to New Braunfels, Tex., after Jeremy's first ski trip. It had been a hard year for Jeremy: Born with spina bifida, he needs to rely on a wheelchair. That made his success on the ski slopes even sweeter. It didn't matter that he had to sit in order to ski.

"I felt so free," Jeremy said with a satisfied smile. "I could do what I wanted. I had the whole mountain."

Taking the Kids appears the first and third week of every month.

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