Adaptive skiing empowers disabled athletes
If it weren’t for adaptive skiing and other empowering outdoor activities like it, Vijay Viswanathan isn’t sure life would be worth living.Viswanathan, a 20-year-old from Boulder, has been confined to a wheelchair since December 2003, when he sustained a broken back in a climbing accident. Determined to maintain an active lifestyle, he came to Breckenridge this season to learn how to ski.Viswanathan was a part-time snowboarder prior to his injury, but didn’t get into skiing until he was forced to do it sitting down. After eight lessons at the Breckenridge Outdoor Education Center’s (BOEC) adaptive skiing program, the South Carolina native is close to realizing his goal of functioning independently on the slopes.”I’m getting a lot better,” Viswanathan said after a recent lesson at Breckenridge. “But it’s nice if someone doesn’t mind lending a hand … as long as you’re willing to take it.”Viswanathan has found many helping hands at the BOEC, which has been teaching adaptive skiing since the early ’80s.Jeff Inouye, a BOEC adaptive skiing instructor, has been working closely with Viswanathan throughout his rookie ski season. Inouye says that many people make the false assumption that sit-skiing is completely different from traditional skiing.”Skiing is skiing, weather you’re sitting down, snowboarding or you’re an amputee skiing on one leg,” Inouye said. “All the body movements and patterns are exactly the same.”People in wheelchairs began to take to the slopes during the late 1970’s when the mono-ski was developed. Prior to the invention of the mono-ski, amputee and visually impaired athletes were the only disabled skiers who could ski.
Mono-skis are commonly accompanied by outriggers, which are poles that have ski tips instead of pole points. Outriggers are used for balance, braking and turning.In addition to mono-skiing, the BOEC also teaches bi-skiing, which is “a catch-all for all disabilities,” Inouye said. Bi-skiing was designed for people with a more severe degree of injury who don’t have the core strength or mobility to operate outriggers. Even someone like the late Christopher Reeve, a paraplegic who could only move his head, could experience bi-skiing.”Vijay is paralyzed from his mid-chest down,” Inouye said. “Once paralysis gets higher than that, people often don’t have the strength in their trunks to stay balanced or to hold themselves up.”Viswanathan, who fell 90 feet while repelling down a rock face, considers himself lucky that he wasn’t hurt worse. “I broke my back at T5 and T6; a complete sever,” he said. “There’s not a whole lot of chance for me to get up and walk again. At least I know I can focus on this stuff (skiing).” The importance of outriggersBecause beginning sit-skiers are unable to form a wedge like traditional skiers, they must rely on outriggers to decrease their speed. Outriggers are equipped with small claws that mono-skiers dig into the snow by lowering their elbows. Over time, outriggers become less likely to be used as brakes.
“Once a mono-skier becomes an intermediate, they start making hockey stops just like anybody else,” Inouye said. Outriggers are also used to initiate turns. Inouye instructs his students to point their outrigger in the direction of their intended turn. The closer they come to forming a 90-degree angle with their ski, the quicker their turn will take place.As BOEC students become more dynamic with their upper bodies, they are taught to lean into turns more. “We won’t tell students to do anything with their upper bodies until they’re comfortable on the mono ski,” Inouye said. “If they try to shift their upper bodies too early, they just end up falling over.””Balance was tough at first,” Viswanathan said. “I can’t feel anything below my nipples so I can’t feel what the ski is doing until I feel my upper body tipping over, it’s a really weird feeling.”Potential hazardsLack of feeling can pose potential problems for disabled skiers because frostbite can set in without them realizing it. As a result, BOEC instructors closely monitor their students’ thermoregulation and body temperatures.Another primary concern for mono-skiers are shoulder injuries.
“We tell students not to brake falls by sticking their arms out,” Inouye said. “We tell them to just pull their arms in and let the side of the bucket take the brunt of the fall. It’s pretty important because if they blow out their shoulder, they won’t be able to get around in their wheelchairs.”Changing livesGene Gamber, the director of BOEC’s adaptive skiing program, employs 18 paid instructors and 11 interns. Over the course of the season, he projects that his staff will provide approximately 2,500 lessons.”It’s not every day that we are part of a life-changing experience,” Gamber said. “But it does happen quite often.”Adaptive skiing, no doubt, has given hope and inspiration to countless instructors and students like Viswanathan.”Some people get hurt, become depressed and they’re never the same,” he said. “Some people go on with their lives and make the best of it and some people do more than they ever would have done had they never gotten hurt. The reasons, I don’t know.”Adam Boffey can be contacted at (970) 668-3998, ext. 13631, or at email@example.com.
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