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Explore Summit: Adaptive Skiing

Winter sports are a way of life in Summit County.

Each year, visitors from around the globe come to Colorado’s Western Slope to take in the mountain views and majestic blankets of snow drifting down over the peaks. They make their way to the backcountry to snowshoe, to the parks to Nordic ski and, of course, to the area’s world-class resorts for a day full of skiing and snowboarding.

But nobody should be left out of the fun, and the area offers plenty of opportunities for individuals with disabilities to get up on the slopes. Whether it’s someone looking to learn adaptive snowsports for the first time or somebody looking to take their performance to the next level, Summit County has programs to get them there.

For people with physical or cognitive disabilities, the ability to get out on the mountain can be life-changing.

Finding a Way to Thrive

“It’s so liberating just to be able to be outside and be around others with similar or different disabilities,” said Kristin Ryder, whose son Burke recently started adaptive skiing. “It’s so invigorating for everyone. The smiles on the faces of these kids when they’re going down the slopes, or get going fast in their chairs, is so empowering. It’s so worthwhile. I know what it’s given my family.”

Burke Ryder is 15 years old, and skiing has always been a big part of his life. He participated as a member of Team Breckenridge Sports Club until 2017, when he was diagnosed with osteosarcoma in his legs — a type of bone cancer.

Knowing his days as an able-bodied skier were over, Burke and his family began looking into options to get him back on skis. They discovered Breckenridge Outdoor Education Center. With the center’s help, Burke jumped into adaptive bi-skiing for the first time.

Burke’s condition continued to worsen, though. In 2019, his left leg was amputated. While going through surgeries, chemotherapy and more, it was the knowledge that he would soon return to the slopes that helped to keep him going.

“He’s been through a lot,” Ryder said. “He’s had 14 surgeries, two years of intense chemo and he’s lost a leg. It was so much. So being able to have a light at the end of the tunnel in skiing was huge.”

Burke continued his journey into adaptive sports with sit-skiing, and Ryder has lauded the experience for her son and entire family.

“When he first did it, it was an amazing experience because his whole ski team was around him and skied runs with him,” Ryder said. “And it allows for that freedom you don’t get as somebody stuck in the hospital or disabled in some way. It’s being able to go as fast as you want. It’s being able to do something for yourself again and to have control.

“It also allowed him to look into the future and say ‘I want to ski in Steamboat, and there’s an adaptive program in Austria I want to try.’ He can look to the future and dream big about what he can do next. … It means everything for us. It’s amazing to have your whole family back on the slopes.”

Ryder said Burke is still going through chemotherapy treatments but hopes to be finished by the end of December and plans to continue to sign up for ski lessons whenever he can.

Giving It a Try

Not everybody has the same story as Burke, but people with all kinds of disabilities can find ways to recreate here in Summit County. The Breckenridge Outdoor Education Center, the county’s largest provider of adaptive sports opportunities, offers a wide range of activities, including skiing, snowboarding, Nordic skiing and snowshoeing. The center also offers a variety of options during summer months.

The nonprofit works primarily with Keystone Resort and Breckenridge Ski Resort, providing discounted equipment rentals, lift tickets and lessons for beginner and experienced adaptive athletes. The center, which first began providing adaptive opportunities in the early 1980s, has grown to provide more than 3,000 lessons a year — taking on groups from organizations and hospitals as well as individuals looking to give it a try while they’re in the area.

Jeff Inouye, director of the center’s adaptive ski program, said adaptive sports are constantly evolving and growing in popularity, opening the door for more people to try it out.

The growth in popularity in adaptive sports can in part be attributed to its improved visibility in recent years, with adaptive athletes performing on big stages like the X Games and Dew Tour. New and improved technology in the area has also made a difference.

“One of the cool things with adaptive skiing is there’s constantly newer and better adaptive equipment being invented,” Inouye said. “And not only in the actual equipment, but there’s also been unbelievable developments in things like prosthetics that are allowing folks with disabilities to do more. … When I first started, there were two mono-skis you could choose from. Now there are 10 or 12 different types you can choose from. So the advancements have opened new doors and opportunities.”

Inouye said the center’s program works with people to help determine what type of equipment and activities they are best suited for based on their personal goals and safety — if an individual has their mind set on something specific, the group will work to make it happen — and provide hands-on training with paid staff and trained volunteers. Lessons are either half or full day, and include the price of equipment rental and a lift ticket for a significant discount. The center also gives out about $100,000 in financial aid and scholarships for groups and individuals each year, and offers specific military scholarships for service veterans.

Everyone is encouraged to reach out to them and set up a lesson. The center works with individuals with cognitive and physical disabilities, including things like blindness.

“That’s one of the cool things that we do because every person here is different,” Inouye said. “Every person has a different sort of disability and learns a different way. That’s what keeps us really on our toes and interested in what we’re doing. … The big thing that all our programs are trying to do is just get out there and let people know there are options out there. There are people that don’t even know things like this are an option for them.”

Pursuing Excellence

Options are out there and definitely worth pursuing for anyone interested in getting back on the ski hill. But for individuals hoping to develop their skills and show them off on the world stage, it helps to get some tips from people who’ve been there.

Another one of the county’s best resources for people with disabilities is Adaptive Action Sports, a nonprofit organization founded in 2005 by Daniel Gale and Amy Purdy.

Purdy grew up as a big-time snowboarder, but at 19 years old, she was diagnosed with meningococcal meningitis, a bacterial infection that required her legs to be amputated below the knee. She says her love for riding helped to carry her through adversity and allowed her to become an example for people with disabilities to show what’s possible with a lot of hard work.

Today, Purdy is one of the premier adaptive snowboarders in the world, taking home medals in snowboard cross in the last two Paralympic Games in Sochi and Pyeongchang. But perhaps her most shining achievement is the founding of Adaptive Action Sports, which focuses on creating some of the best adaptive athletes in the world.

The nonprofit focuses primarily on snowboarders — a largely nonexistent adaptive sport before Purdy got involved — providing expert training for new and experienced boarders.

“We’re open to working with anybody who wants to come up and snowboard,” Purdy said. “We have a handful of athletes that have made it to the Paralympic level that are trained to teach as well. Whenever somebody is in town, we team them up with a Paralympian who can take them out and teach them the ropes. … But if somebody wants to take it further, we have a pipeline to the Paralympic Games.”

Purdy said Adaptive Action Sports helped to train eight of the 13 individuals on the U.S. Snowboard Team for the Pyeongchang games, who combined for six Paralympic medals.

But ultimately it doesn’t matter if it’s someone’s first adventure into adaptive sports or they’re training for the gold. Summit County has a lot to offer for anybody hoping to get out and play.

“I think that if you’re passionate about something, the possibilities are endless,” Purdy said. “We’re just here to help them find a way.”

This story was originally published in the winter 2020 edition of Explore Summit.


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