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Adaptive skiing thrives on Maine mountains

by Leigh Macmillen Hayes

Blind Skier (Nevi, 2014)When Sara Stockwell asked a Veteran injured in a helicopter crash in Iraq what his goals were for a winter ski program, he told her that he wanted to be able to ski with his two young children. The man’s spine was fused and he’d suffered a brain injury, which affected his balance and sometimes his decision making.

His goal became Sara’s goal–as a volunteer with Maine Adaptive Sports & Recreation (MASR), she’s trained to assess individual needs and provide one-on-one instruction using adaptive techniques and equipment. The overriding goal is to get the person outside to play and have fun in our beautiful state.

Sara says, “We started off slowly using a slider, a piece of equipment that is like a walker on skis and is tethered by the instructor. He progressed quickly and found his balance, so we soon switched to a simple waist tether. The tether was mostly an emergency brake. With his brain injury from the crash, he did not trust himself to make good decisions in the beginning.”

“By the end of the long weekend,” continues Sara, “he was skiing independently using outriggers, which are like crutches with little skis attached for balance, and skied many of Sunday River’s intermediate trails. He was thrilled to be headed home to ski with his children.”

This is just one of the many experiences she has had with MASR. “Every day that I volunteer, I meet amazing, brave, trusting individuals who just want to enjoy recreational experiences like everyone else.”

Sara began as a volunteer for summer programs in 2004, but the actual adaptive ski program was launched at Sunday River in 1982 by Dr. Omar (Chip) Crothers, a Portland-based orthopedic surgeon, and Leslie B. Otten, founder of American Skiing Company. Today, about 400 volunteers are trained and certified to create a safe and fun environment while developing the potential of each participant.

JoAnne Diller is another on-slope volunteer. “Depending on a person’s disability and equipment,” she says, “they may have two to four people with them. I’m more or less a ski buddy. I ski behind them and try to figure out how they can improve their skiing. One day I worked with an eight-year-old girl who has cerebral palsy. She’d been in the program for several years, but I’d never worked with her before. She had always been tethered. As I watched her, I figured out she didn’t depend on the tether so we had her ski without it. I told her to make turns just like she had learned and to ski down to her mom. The look on her mother’s face was spectacular. Her daughter was a free and independent skier.”

That’s what it’s all about. Freedom. Independence. Control. Smiles. Accomplishment. The opportunity to make decisions and try new things; the chance to not feel inhibited by what inhibits them in their every day lives. MASR aims to provide all of this and more. The participants take leaps of faith as they learn to do something they didn’t realize they could do.

Maine Adaptive Sports & Recreation has its home base in a small ski-in, ski-out handicap-accessible lodge at Sunday River. Deb Maxfield, Director of Marketing & Development for MASR, stresses that the program caters to people with permanent physical needs ages four and up.

The cost of equipment is challenging for able-bodied people, but magnified when it comes to adaptive equipment. Add to that the cost of private lessons and a lift ticket and the price is quite hefty. Through fundraising efforts, including the annual Ski-A-Thon held at Sunday River each March, MASR raises the monies so the entire experience is free of charge for all participants.

MASR offers individuals the opportunity to participate in outdoor adventures year round. Right now, they are enjoying winter sports including alpine and Nordic skiing, snowboarding and snowshoeing at Sunday River, The Outdoor Center, Sugarloaf and Pineland. Other programs take place at the Nordic Heritage Sport Club, Camden Snow Bowl and Black Mountain.

Stop by the MASR lodge at Sunday River this winter and discover what Deb describes as “Old Home Week on a daily basis.” The camaraderie between participants and volunteers is evident in the jokes and smiles everywhere you turn. And then there’s the thrill of the mountain that awaits. f

FMI: Register with MASR at www.maineadaptive.org.

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