Making mountain life accessible for all

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Photos courtesy Disabled Sports USA Far West ·

In 1997, Roger Bartley was in a car accident that resulted in a traumatic brain injury. He was in a coma for 42 days and in and out of hospitals for more than a year. Doctors said he would never walk or talk again. Bartley proved them wrong. Today, he is not only walking and talking, but biking around 2,000 miles a year and skiing more than 50 days a season. During his recovery, Bartley joined the Disabled Sports program at Alpine Meadows.

“I had to learn to ski all over again,” Bartley said. He now volunteers throughout the year teaching alpine skiing in the winter and water skiing in the summer.

“I’m often a role model for people who have had a stroke or TBI because they look at me and say, ‘If you can do it, I can do it,’ ” he says.

Disabled Sports USA Far West operates out of a modest building at the base of Alpine Meadows with more than 150 volunteers and a mission of providing inclusive and affordable lessons for students of all ages and abilities. The program is able to provide need-based scholarships for many of its students and lesson fees are far less than what one would pay for a regular group lesson at the resort. Student fees make up only 15 percent of the program’s revenue with the rest coming from fundraising and private donations. Because the program is nonprofit, it is not eligible for government funding.

“Without the scholarship program, most of our students wouldn’t be able to do this,” said Laurie Persons, Adapted PE teacher in the Tahoe-Truckee school district. Persons is accompanying three young adults who are in a post-high school transition program. The students get three ski lessons per year and received discounted rental equipment from Tahoe Dave’s.

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“She’s faster than me today,” shouts an instructor as a skier, Sarah Jenkins, one of Persons’ students, rips down the hill with a big grin.

“The instructors are amazing. They develop a quick rapport with the students, which is really important,” said Persons. “This program allows everyone to live the mountain lifestyle.”

Disabled sports has helped the Dowgert family enjoy the mountain lifestyle for the past eight years. Stashu Dowgert, or Stanley as he is called by instructors, has cerebral palsy and spends most of his life in a wheelchair, however, he is able to get out and ski each year.

“The best part of the program is that we can all ski together,” said Kitty Dowgert, Stashu’s mother. “It’s the highlight of our year.”

Adaptive skiing is a relatively new discipline, and has gone through a rapid evolution to be able to accommodate the variety of skiers who are able to access the mountains today.

It all started in 1967 when Jim Winthers, a World War II veteran of the 10th Mountain Division, brought a group of Vietnam veterans to Soda Springs to learn to ski. Many of the veterans were amputees who learned on one ski with outriggers for support. As the director of the Soda Springs Ski School, Winthers when on to launch Disabled Sports USA, but it would be years until the program gained professional recognition.

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Katherine Hayes Rodriguez heard about a group of blind people learning to ski from a friend and decided to check it out for herself. Her introduction to Disable Sports USA proved to be the beginning of a long journey with the program. Disabled Sports USA moved to Alpine Meadows in 1970, operating out of a small trailer with a volunteer staff.

“We were sponsored by the 7-11 corporation and we’d travel the country in give clinics and lessons,” said Rodriguez of the early days with the program. The interest was there, but the program wasn’t gaining recognition with resorts.

“Here we were, we had this big program but we felt we weren’t taken seriously,” said Rodriguez. “So we got certified.”

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She joined the Professional Ski Instructors Association, the national governing body for certified ski instructors. Then, she began writing the exam process for instructors to become certified in adaptive skiing. Today, adaptive skiing has been adopted by all divisions of PSIA and is one of five disciplines that instructors may specialize in during certification. The Katherine Hayes Rodriguez Scholarship has been set up to help new athletes join the program and recognizes the work Rodriguez has done to take adaptive ski instructors to the professional level.

Adaptive equipment has come a long way since the beginning, as well. The first sit ski was invented in 1978, and resembled a sled more than the refined ski equipment seen today. The limitations of equipment didn’t matter because it was the only way for anyone in a wheelchair to access the mountains at the time. The next step in evolution was the monoski, which has a linkage system and incorporates a shock absorber similar to what is seen on motorcycles. The monoski gave its users the ability to access everything from beginner to expert terrain. Following that is the bi-ski, which features a lower center of gravity and is easier to maneuver for those with high level injuries, and the dual ski, which offers the performance and independence of the monoski combined with some of the stability of the bi-ski.

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Doug Giffin uses a dual ski to access the goods all across Alpine Meadows. Giffin suffered a C6/C7 incomplete spinal injury during a crash while mountain biking. A long-time snowboarder, Giffin was drawn back to the mountains when his son became old enough to learn to ski. After 3 years of lessons at Alpine Meadows, Giffin tried a monoski, but found it difficult to use with his injury and switched to using a dual ski when skiing with Disabled Sports USA.

Disabled Sports USA continues to provide lessons to military members wounded in combat during Military Winter Sports Camp from April 1 to 4. The camp offers four days of adaptive lessons free of charge to disabled service men and women. The week culminates in two of the largest fundraisers for the program. The Ability Bash Banquet on April 4 is a celebration of those who served our country featuring a gourmet buffet dinner with wine and beer, silent auctions, raffles, live music and dancing. The following day is the celebration of the Ability Challenge. The Ability Challenge is a season-long fundraiser where individuals or teams create Web sites and raise money for the program. A minimum of $200 earns participants a day at Squaw Valley and the chance to participate in the challenge, which is similar to a walk-a-thon or ski-a-thon with all runs tracked by GPS.

The Disabled Sports program has recently expanded to include lessons at Squaw Valley and Northstar, but the logistics of transporting students and equipment to mountains outside of Alpine Meadows proves to be challenging. However, the programs hopes to continue expanding to meet the growing needs of participants.

“Hopefully, in my time here we can be at every big resort in the area and one day provide the same opportunities enjoyed by everyone,” said Executive Director Haakon Lang-Ree. In the meantime, it’s the little victories that count.

“Our goal is to make everyone a little better. It can be a long journey,” said Roger Bartley.

For more information on Disabled Sports Far West or to purchase tickets to the Ability Bash, visit dsusafw.org.

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Mountain Aloha Tuesdays
March 18 | 4:30- 8 p.m. | Jake’s On the Lake
Drink & food specials | Raffle | Benefits Disabled Sports

Wild Winter Wednesdays
March 19 | 3:30-6 p.m. | River Ranch
Drink & food specials | Raffle | Benefits Disabled Sports

Ability Bash Banquet
April 4 | 6 p.m. | Olympic Village Lodge
$100 | Food, fines wines & craft beers, silent auction, raffle, music & dancing