The Frisco Nordic Center was a bustling place on Wednesday afternoon, as participants of The Hartford Ski Spectacular filled the lobby. They chatted with one another as they pulled on gear, preparing to head out into chilly temperatures to learn the finer points of adaptive Nordic snow sports. Skis and poles were balanced over shoulders, wheelchairs wove expertly in and out of the crowd and all kinds of adaptive equipment found its way onto the snow.
Skiers ranged from teenagers to adults, but everyone seemed eager to get out and get started. Some made new friends, while others greeted acquaintances they hadn’t seen since the event last year, or longer. Among the participants at the Nordic Center were Paralympic athletes, Wounded Warriors and skiers at all levels of ability.
One such participant was Craig Kennedy, of Steamboat Springs. Kennedy has been a monoskier for about 16 years. A monoski, also known as a sit-ski, consists of a seat mounted to a metal frame with ski-like appendages. Kennedy became disabled 18 years ago after breaking his back in a skiing accident. He hasn’t lost his passion for the sport, however.
“It’s still my favorite,” he said.
Kennedy is the program director for Steamboat Adaptive Recreational Sports (STARS), a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization for adaptive snow sports, providing recreational opportunities for people with disabilities.
On Wednesday, Kennedy came to the Nordic Center for a special occasion.
“It’s the first time I’ve been Nordic skiing since I’ve been in a chair,” he said. In addition to getting back into the sport, Kennedy was using it as an opportunity to learn more about it, so he could bring the information and knowledge back to the STARS program.
“The biggest thing is we really get a chance to learn from the best people in the industry, from all over the country,” Kennedy said of the benefit of an event like The Hartford Ski Spectacular. “It’s an amazing chance to learn from the best, and also a great place to demo equipment.”
Kennedy was preparing to head out with Marc Mast, program director of the Wood River Ability Program in Sun Valley, Idaho, and Mark Wellman, two-time Paralympian and adaptive ski instructor. The two men typify the type of professionals drawn to the Hartford event.
Wellman started as a participant of The Hartford Ski Spectacular and now returns as an instructor.
“I learned to alpine ski here 25 years ago,” he said. He enjoys his role as instructor, particularly watching as his students improve and gain confidence. One of his current students, a young girl, has been in a wheelchair for less than a year, he said. She flew out from Georgia and has been experiencing a completely different environment in snowy Summit County.
“I’ve noticed a big difference from the first day to today,” Wellman said. “She’s doing much better, so it’s really exciting to see that.”
Wellman agreed with Kennedy that one of the benefits of The Hartford event is how it brings people together, whether they’re professionals, training to be instructors, or participants.
“The atmosphere is tremendous, especially if you’re newly injured. You’re trying to take in all this info,” he said. “There is life after spinal cord injury or amputation or head injury or visual impairment. You can do the things you want to do, and I think that’s what the Ski Spectacular is all about, to show the possibilities in winter sports, what’s out there, what’s available.”
Rob Rosser has also witnessed the unique atmosphere of The Hartford Ski Spectacular. As the U.S. Paralympic Nordic skiing and biathlon coach, Rosser works with athletes and veterans. As an Olympian and an Iraq veteran, he relates well to both groups.
“The sport’s been great to me and it’s something that I can share with the disabled vets,” he said.
On Wednesday, Rosser was working with veterans on biathlon skills. He describes the biathlon as “a thinking man’s sport,” with challenges both physical and mental. In addition to enjoying being out and participating in one of his favorite activities, Rosser also enjoys the company.
“That’s part of the intrigue for the coaches,” he said. “You’re around high powered, positive athletes, people that are inspirational to you, and you have the great fortune of being able to share something with them that they’re pumped up about, and that may get them interested in a lifelong sport.”
Rosser also noted the positive aspect of encouraging the families of the disabled participants to join in the Ski Spectacular. Rosser himself showed up with several members of his own family, including his wife and 14-month-old son.
“It’s a lifetime sport and a family sport, because what else can you go outside (and do) side by side with the entire family, regardless of the age? Whether they be five or 105, you can do the sport forever,” he said. “It’s a very holistic, healthy environment in that regard. It’s something that you’re not only passing on to the veteran (and participant) but their family as well. … We’re not here just for the sport, we’re here to affect their lives in a broad positive way.”