More than 800 individuals from more than 30 states and five foreign countries have descended upon Beaver Run Resort and Breckenridge Ski Resort to enjoy a week of learning new adaptive snowsports teaching techniques and participating in on-the-snow activities for individuals with disabilities.
It's the 24th annual Hartford Ski Spectacular, an eight-day event and the nation's largest of its kind. Traditionally, more than 700 participants ranging in ability from first-time skiers to members of the U.S. Paralympics Alpine Skiing National Team come together during the event.
This year, more than 100 wounded warriors and their families will be part of the festivities.
"The Hartford Ski Spectacular is an ideal event for individuals with disabilities to develop independence, confidence and fitness," said Kirk Bauer, JD, executive director of Disabled Sports USA. Bauer, a disabled Vietnam veteran, previously scaled Mount Kilimanjaro with two wounded warriors who received their first sports training at The Hartford Ski Spectacular.
Bauer has been attending The Hartford for roughly two decades. The event has been at Breckenridge Ski Resort for most of that time.
"It's organized chaos," Bauer said. "In one set of rooms you have the instructors who are here from more than 30 different ski areas learning adaptive techniques ... Then you've got the wounded warriors and their instructors getting matched up to get their equipment and go out on the snow... And everyone milling around in the lobbies bumping into each other with guide dogs and companion dogs with their harnesses on. It's quite a show, and this goes on every morning."
Bauer was among the first soldiers serviced by Disabled Sports USA, which was founded in 1967 as a charitable organization to provide opportunities for individuals injured in Vietnam to regain independence, confidence and fitness through sports. It's since grown into one of the nation's largest multi-sport, multi-disability organizations, annually serving more than 60,000 wounded warriors, youth and adults with disabilities.
"What got me hooked on disabled sports and particularly disabled skiing ... was the feeling of freedom and being able to take control of my body again and be able to accomplish something again ... that really turned my head around after I'd been in the hospital for seven months," Bauer said.
What brings him back is the energy.
"It's the energy that everyone seems to have when they come to this event. We have some dedicated volunteers who have been coming for years. They all come with the singular purpose to try to make a difference. You can see it, you can feel it throughout the week," he said.
Just eight days can be life-changing for some, he added. Like for the soldiers who lost limbs as recently as this summer and fall.
"It can be a life-changing experience for someone who's been recently disabled," Bauer said. "Their whole world has been turned upside down. They literally don't have an identify anymore. They're trying to rebuild and rebuild who they were. (This) helps them see a future and rebuild hope."
Activities offered throughout the week help strengthen and expand adaptive ski programs in communities across the country as well as identify and train youth, wounded warriors and others with disabilities, including those who strive to be winter paralympians.
A week of ski race training, sponsored by U.S. Paralympics, prepares athletes for the 2012 U.S. Disabled Alpine Ski Championships in Sugarbush, Vt., and Aspen; the 2012 World Championships in La Molina, Spain; and the 2014 Paralympic Winter Games in Sochi, Russia.
On Saturday, a mid-level race is open to paralympians and general Hartford participants. It allows the advanced athletes to provide guidance and inspiration to other aspiring participants and wounded warriors.
Paralympians stick around for the NorAm competitive races Monday through Thursday at Copper Mountain next week, which draws "a number of foreign countries sending competitors," Bauer said.
"For the 18th consecutive year, The Hartford is proud to sponsor this important program that's been a birthplace of U.S. Paralympic champions," said Ron Gendreau of The Hartford. "The Hartford Ski Spectacular is a perfect capstone for this year's Achieve Without Limits campaign. We are inspired by The Hartford Ski Spectacular participants who demonstrate courage, strength and determination as they achieve success."