As adaptive skiers and snowboarders take to the slopes in Breckenridge this week, approximately 300 volunteers will be working to ensure the 26th Hartford Ski Spectacular runs smoothly.
The weeklong event at Beaver Run Resort and Conference Center offers training classes for adaptive snowsports instructors and lessons in adaptive skiing and snowboarding for individuals with disabilities.
Volunteer instructor Bri Boyle from New Hampshire is a member of New England Disabled Sports and is participating for the third time in the Ski Spectacular. Boyle, a physical therapist, grew up skiing and said this event was a great way to combine her two loves.
Boyle teaches varying skill sets, from those she calls the “never-evers” to people who might be recently injured and even individuals who used to ski before becoming disabled and want to learn again.
“It’s really giving back someone their life,” she said. “I’ve had people where, their husband or wife skis, now they can go back on the slopes with them.”
Volunteers, many of whom are snowboard and ski instructors, commit to a minimum of half a day for any role and must have adaptive certifications. They come from all over the country to spend their time teaching others for free. Volunteers come to Colorado at their own expense, paying for their transportation and hotel rooms.
For volunteer snowboard instructor Michael “Flynnie” Flynn, who is in his ninth year at the Ski Spectacular, the volunteers are all like big family.
“These people make you feel humble,” he said. “I used to teach able-bodied people, and I really had to adapt to the adapters.”
Throughout the week, volunteers work jobs from transportation to helping set up and break down event signs. There are administrative tasks like checking in visitors, and handing out numbers to racers. Curling and sled hockey volunteers retrieve stones, fit equipment and help participants stay upright, while race camp coaches teach youth and adults.
Adaptive skier Caitlin Sarubbi and her family were invited to the Ski Spectacular after 9/11, to honor her father John, a New York City firefighter. Now, John and Caitlin’s mother, Cathy, return to the event every year as volunteers, saying they wanted to give back to the event that forever changed their daughter’s life.
“She had never skied a day before in her life,” Cathy said. “Now she has the ability to live a really fulfilling life, she’s studying at Harvard right now. This gave her the opportunity to be a champion.”
The Sarubbi family often helps serve a hot lunch during the Ski Spectacular, and Cathy said she loves seeing how much the event can help impact other families too.
“The bomb was dropped on us, and just to help others find and live a great life through sport is why we come back,” she said.
Flynn said while it’s sometimes challenging to work with students who may have memory problems due to Down syndrome or Asperger’s — many disabilities are not physical, but mental — he is always happy to repeat instructions as much as needed.
“It’s very emotional, to see what they can accomplish,” he said. “These people from Texas, Florida have never seen snow before. It’s amazing at the end of the week to see what people can do.”
Boyle said she has noticed the instant connections between some instructors and their students, and how over time, the event becomes a big family reunion.
“Everyone works together so well,” she said. “You meet someone and spend all day skiing with them, and you feel like you’ve known them forever.”
Besides lessons, which are offered twice a day throughout the week, volunteers also help make sure events like the welcome banquet, casino night and other clinics make the entire experience memorable.
“You have to step back and let them have their own moments,” Boyle said. “It’s about experiencing the whole picture. It’s not just the lessons, it’s the whole week of events.”
It takes more than just staff from Disabled Sports USA and the Breckenridge Outdoor Education Center to handle the more than 800 people who come to the Ski Spectacular. Volunteers are a critical part of the event, Boyle said.
“I’ve seen people exhausted, falling, but they always say it was a great time,” she said. “Every time, no matter how battered and bruised, they thank me. It’s a rewarding experience.”