How Adaptive Snow Sports Inspired a Generation
Brandi Rosado and her family started coming to the Winter Park Resort from Memphis, Tennessee for their annual ski vacation because of the National Sports Center for the Disabled (NSCD). Brandi, a skier who loves to barrel down the slope at high speed on her bi-ski, had a huge smile on her face from the moment that I met her. She eagerly agreed to let me shadow her lesson, her excitement and joy completely uncontainable and contagious. The incredible adaptive program, innovative equipment, and dedicated staff have made skiing an activity that the whole Rosado family can enjoy together.
Like most great ideas, the founding of the NSCD came about because one man bit off more than he could chew. Hal O’Leary, a ski instructor at Winter Park Resort, raised his hand in January of 1970 to take on a beginner lesson for 23 amputee children visiting the resort from Denver Children’s Hospital. Though O’Leary had prepared by practicing with hand-held outriggers, that first morning was harder than expected. “They arrived on a miserable, cold, January day,” recounts O’Leary, “It was awful. The kids were cold, and I was climbing up the hill with them while they were hopping on one leg and so on. One little guy, who was down in the snow and whose glasses had fallen down his face, looked up at me and said, ‘Hal, I hate your guts’. I couldn’t blame him.” So, like any seasoned instructor would do, O’Leary bribed them with hot chocolate and the promise of a chairlift ride. Before he knew it, the children were laughing and screaming, their jackets flapping behind them as they slid down the slope at high speed. The kids were hooked and so was Hal.
More than 40 years later, the program has evolved into an internationally recognized organization that annually serves more than 3,000 participants in both recreational and competitive sport capacities. O’Leary largely credits technological advancements in adaptive snow sports equipment and innovative teaching methods for the success and longevity of the program. “We didn’t have the proper adaptive equipment to handle the demand as the program began to grow,” explains O’Leary, “So, I thought all right, I’m going to have to start working on devices”. A Norwegian cross-country sled with metal edging became one of the first effective sit-skis. “I put the first paraplegic person on the hill with this incredible thing,” Hal recounts, still amazed that the device actually worked.
Deftly engineered shocks, fiberglass seats, lifted binding mounts, and handmade tethers are now ubiquitous components on sit-skis. The $7,500 devices range from independent mono-skis to fully instructor-driven bi-skis similar to the ski that Brandi Rosado enjoys.
Pat Campanello, the head NSCD equipment technician, has become the leading authority in Colorado on adaptive ski equipment. He has been working full time with the program since 1981 and has grown with it from its humble beginnings in a broom closet at the Winter Park Resort to a fully equipped mechanic’s shop that can handle competitive and recreational gear alike. The California native arrived in Winter Park in the winter of 1978, began volunteering with Hal O’Leary and NSCD, and like everyone who comes into contact with the program, he was totally inspired. “I just want to see people ski and have fun,” Campanello explains when asked why he has stayed with the program, “If a person is having a bad day, I hope that when they leave that their day got just a little bit better”. For Campanello, that means helping with customer service, fixing mechanical malfunctions with the NSCD’s rental equipment, and fulfilling custom orders. The walls of his shop are covered with specialized tools, half-repaired mono-ski seats, and special gear requests from participants like the sweet pair of Blizzard Brahma alpine skis with a sleek 4-inch lift built under the right binding that stood leaning in a corner. “I always say yes,” says Campanello, “My goal is to get people back out on the hill as quickly as possible. I just want people to enjoy themselves”.
The impact of Hal O’Leary’s crazy idea can be measured in so many ways—in the numbers of participants and their families who have worked with the program in its 45 year run, the palpable joy in the offices of the NSCD at Winter Park, the many programs around the world that O’Leary has inspired and helped create, and the recognition O’Leary has received in the winter sports community and beyond. The Canadian born visionary was inducted into the US Ski & Snowboard Hall of Fame in 1990 and awarded the Order of Canada in 2010, an honor akin to English knighthood. But O’Leary says that his greatest success was that first day on the hill in January of 1970. The young boy who told Hal that he hated his guts on that first morning also told him years later accompanied by his wife and children, “Hal, I really don’t hate you”. As Hal said, if that isn’t evidence of the wonderful community that has since taken form, I don’t know what is.
Visit nscd.org/participate to get involved.
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Sophie is the Content Marketing Manager of OutThere Colorado. She's an avid skier and dreams of powder days even in summer.