Gene Gamber never meant to become an instructor. He certainly didn’t think his unpaid volunteer job with the Breckenridge Outdoor Education Center (BOEC) would ever amount to much more than taking up a few hours here and there of his free time.
Now, as the director of the BOEC’s adaptive ski program, Gamber can look back on more than two decades of service in the adaptive snow sports industry.
“I can’t say what would’ve happened if I didn’t start to do this, (but) this has certainly moved me in a positive direction,” he said, adding that his work with the BOEC has been “the best part of my life. … You just get more than you give. It’s just that simple.”
Although it wasn’t a path he’d necessarily planned on taking, Gamber has enjoyed himself every step of the way, from his first volunteer hours to his latest participation in The Hartford Ski Spectacular this week, where he was honored by Disabled Sports USA for achievements in the advancement of adaptive sports.
Born in Pennsylvania, Gamber grew up near Kalamazoo, in southwest Michigan. He’s lived in various areas around the country, although by now he’s resided in Colorado longer than anywhere else. In 1979, he moved from Indiana to a construction job in Littleton. However, the construction industry wasn’t doing so well, so Gamber and a friend made their way to Breckenridge.
At that time, Gamber described himself as a “sort of” skier, without much of a purpose or plan.
“We spent most of our winters skiing, working odd jobs to be able to do that, and summers working construction,” he said.
In 1985, the BOEC assisted in hosting the National Handicap Ski Championship. The call went out for volunteers and Gamber decided to see what it was all about.
“I didn’t know what would happened when I went to volunteer, but it fit together with the skill set that I had,” he said. “I wasn’t intimidated by the lifts or anything because I skied, and I wasn’t intimidated necessarily by the people. … I never had a fear of talking to people with disability issues and hanging out with them, because in my youth I would say I was kind of messed up myself, so it didn’t bother me to be around people who might be quote, unquote, different.”
Interacting with people from various backgrounds and experiences over the years has taught Gamber a lot, and given him perspective.
“If you don’t engage people across the spectrum, you’re going to miss out on meeting an awful lot of cool people with interesting and some very inspiring stories,” he said. “You would be remiss to not get to know that segment of the population, and hopefully everybody understands enough about themselves to know that in one way or another, we (all) have something that’s maybe impeding us from moving forward, whether it’s disability issues or something we carry with us.”
After volunteering at the championship event, Gamber continued to give his time to the BOEC, this time as a ski instructor. Although he hadn’t taught skiing before, he decided to dedicate himself to learning more.
“That moved me to learn more about the mechanics of skiing and how people learn — how people learn neural motor sports, particularly snow sports,” he said. “I didn’t even really ski very well at all until I decided I wanted to ski better so that I could teach.”
He also took advantage of instructor certification exams available at reduced cost through the BOEC.
“For a reasonable amount of money, I was able to get pretty far through the certification process,” he said.
After six years of volunteering, all that work paid off and Gamber became the BOEC’s first paid skiing instructor.
The call to teach
Gamber admits that school and education never held much sway with him, which is why he was somewhat surprised to learn that not only did he enjoy teaching others, but he was good at it.
“My father was a teacher, though. A really good one,” he said. “So it did give me a really good example to see what good teaching was. I always enjoyed good teaching, and it’s just something that I happen to have an aptitude for, that I didn’t know that at the time.”
In the beginning, Gamber focused primarily on coaching sit-down skiers. Mono-skis are designed so that disabled people can sit down in a seat, mounted on ski-like appendages, and guide themselves down the slope with short poles, also with ski-like appendages. Gamber has taught both kids and adults, and has seen the adaptive equipment evolve dramatically throughout the years.
One of the best parts of teaching, according to Gamber, is the students.
“When you teach, all teachers would agree that they would like to have a motivated population, people who are motivated to learn what you’re trying to teach and with the adaptive community in general, that’s what you find,” he said. “The people are very motivated, so the idea that you’re doing something positive in general for a community, and for a group of people that could possibly become disenfranchised if they don’t have recreational opportunities, is one that makes you feel positive about what you’re personally doing. I certainly say it filled a place in my life. … To give some meaning to what you’re doing, if you can share what you know and help others enjoy what you enjoy, I think that is what keeps you doing it.”
The journey continues
After six more years of work as an instructor, Gamber became the director of the adaptive ski program, a position which he holds today. Working with the BOEC has created a lot of opportunities for Gamber over the years, from traveling to locations like Argentina and Guatemala, to working with Wounded Warriors and other unique populations.
“I met some interesting people and got to work in other parts of the country and the world. Those were benefits that are now considered part and parcel of my career, but they wouldn’t have happened if it hadn’t been for the initial starting out as an instructor,” he said. “The rare opportunities that have come to me from this are many and getting to travel places I would’ve never gone otherwise.”
To recognize Gamber’s accomplishments and the work he’s done to promote the mission of its adaptive sports organization, Disabled Sports USA awarded him the Jim Winthers Memorial Award on Saturday, Dec. 7, at the ending banquet of The Hartford Ski Spectacular.
“It’s a really nice thing to be able to get that acknowledgement, (but) I think that’s secondary to the feeling you get form the work,” he said. “I think the BOEC is an organization that’s the vehicle that has allowed that. … It’s the people that I’ve been able to work with who have made it a great experience, and that’s what really makes the difference, is the people. There’s been a lot of them and they’ve done a lot, so anything that I’m acknowledged for is really an acknowledgement for all those people who’ve worked with the Breckenridge Outdoor Education Center. It’s a long time over a lot of years. You don’t do anything without all those people; they’re critical, they’re important and that’s what makes it worthwhile. Between the participants and the volunteers and the intern staff and the rest of your staff, that’s what really makes it worth doing, it’s their efforts that actually allow someone like me to get some acknowledgment. It’s not necessarily all that I do or anything.”
That’s the way I would look at it.”
“I can’t say what would’ve happened if I didn’t start to do this, (but) this has certainly moved me in a positive direction,” Gamber says, adding that his work with the BOEC has been “the best part of my life. … You just get more than you give. It’s just that simple.”