Healing through the outdoors | Celebrating 50 years of adaptive sports

Courtesy Achieve Tahoe

This winter the program now known as Achieve Tahoe celebrates its 50th anniversary for providing adaptive sports programs to people with disabilities.

It was started in 1967 by Jim Winthers, a World War II veteran and ski school director. His desire was to use skiing as a way to help Vietnam veterans learn how to cope with injuries they had sustained in the war. Last year, 650 people enjoyed more than 2,000 days of instruction with Achieve Tahoe and for many, that first time gliding down a mountain covered with snow was a dream come true.

“They often talk about what people with disabilities can’t do. But to see someone independently do it. That is a big thing. For me it has been hugely rewarding.”
–Scott Behrens

“We build health, confidence and independence for people with disabilities,” says Haakon Lang-Ree, Achieve Tahoe’s executive director. “Our goal is for students to reach the highest level of independence that each person can reach.”

When students arrive at the Achieve Tahoe facility at Alpine Meadows, there are a range of options available from sit skis and mono skis to a variety of other devices that can be used to fit each student’s needs. Participants can go for a half-day or full-day lesson with at least one or two instructors. Each lesson is private and begins at The Subway chair, located right outside the facility.

Courtesy Achieve Tahoe

People come to Achieve Tahoe with a range of disabilities including autism, cerebral palsy, vision impairment, Down syndrome and those caused from brain or spinal injuries.

“Each person has unique characteristics. We look at each individual and figure out the best plan for that person,” says Achieve Tahoe program director Michael Hunter.

According to Lang-Ree, “We access what their goal and vision is to make the experience something they can appreciate. For some, getting out the door and getting on the snow may be success. For others, the sky is the limit.”

In addition, Achieve Tahoe also hosts military camps for wounded vets. During the four- to five-day camps, the vets not only ski and snowboard, but also take a shot at laser biathlon and snowmobiling.

“We are hoping they get an experience that will help them get back into society. We hope it is something they can continue to pursue with their family,” says Lang-Ree.

Hunter adds, “We are really trying to break down barriers at the camps. Hopefully, it is community building and relationship saving. We’ve had several couples say that it has saved their marriage.”

Pam King is one of the 200 volunteers who work with Achieve Tahoe. She has participated in both the ski program, as well as the summer program at Donner Lake where participants kayak, paddleboard, tube and canoe.

“Every disability and every experience is different,” says King. “You use different techniques to motivate people. It is very rewarding to be part of their special day.”

Scott Behrens came to the program through his son Bryan and the generosity of his friend Steve Berardo, an Achieve Tahoe volunteer. Bryan has cerebral palsy and Berardo sponsored his first lesson and got the ball rolling.

“Steve kept the wheels turning for two years, but then had a back injury and couldn’t coach anymore. I was skiing with Bryan, so I volunteered,” says Behrens.

Behrens initial motivation when he became an instructor last year was to get Bryan skiing so well that the family of five could ski together. While his teaching is bringing Bryan closer to that goal, Behrens is also finding fulfillment in helping all of his other students.

“It was really a positive experience offering people opportunities to do things they haven’t done before. I had a student with cerebral palsy and we found the means for him to ski independently. He got to be able to ski and he had that twinkle in his eyes,” says Behrens.

Behrens remembers an older woman with multiple sclerosis. She had never skied before, but he was able to get her out on the snow in a special walker/ski combination.

“She was able to glide for the first time in her life,” Behrens says. “The next day was one of the nastiest days of the winter; I thought she wouldn’t come, but there she was ahead of schedule with the biggest smile on her face. She skied in the gusty winds and cold blowing snow and was ecstatic.”

“They often talk about what people with disabilities can’t do. But to see someone independently do it. That is a big thing. For me it has been hugely rewarding,” says Behrens.

Achieve Tahoe is a nonprofit organization that survives on the support of those who participate, as well as through fundraising, donations, volunteers and sponsorships. Major fundraisers in 2018 include the Ability Bash on Feb. 10 and the Ability Challenge on April 14, Squaw Valley Art, Wine and Music on July 14 and 15, and Foam Fest on Sept. 1.

For more information, visit achievetahoe.org.