Story by Kate Gerwin
Photos courtesy of the Adaptive Ski Program
For Katya Franzgen, Director of the Adaptive Ski Program, serving Santa Fe, Sandia Peak and Pajarito Mountain, the question, “What if you couldn’t enjoy the outdoors?” is anything but rhetorical.
Being stuck inside, she says, is the reality for many people living with spinal cord injuries, cerebral palsy, traumatic brain injury, multiple sclerosis and a wide range of other disabilities. You could admire the scenery from afar, Katya continues, the distant mountains blanketed in white, faint echoes of people up there having fun. But, parked behind your window, you might just as well be watching a movie. The exhilaration of your own body slicing the brisk, muffled air, through a storm of snowflakes slanting at you vertically, fast and furious, feeling yourself being as miraculously transformed as the landscape—these sensations are, typically, as inaccessible as a dream.
During the winter months, especially, disabilities often keep people isolated at home, with recreational opportunities limited to physical therapy exercises. Cabin fever exacerbates the feeling of alienation; loneliness, depression and poor physical health often follow.
The Adaptive Ski Program (ASP) actively works with members of the disabled community over the age of five who have a desire to challenge themselves to go beyond what they may have thought possible. Think that sounds overly optimistic? According to Katya, “Even if your whole body is paralyzed, as long as you can turn your head—or even just your eyes—you can be an adaptive skier.” Go to the video gallery on adaptiveski.org, the 501(c)(3)’s website, and watch the video. You’ll see for yourself the wide range of students willing to embrace their initial fears and let gravity become their ally. Katya’s personal mantra, repeated in all earnestness, is, “Never say never.”
To adapt means to actively change so as to fit one’s behavior or attitudes to new circumstances. In the video, ASP student Matthew, from Albuquerque, five days into the program, is positively thrilled. “When I drove home after my first lesson,” he enthuses, “I had a smile on the whole day, and I couldn’t wait for the following Saturday to come!” Amanda, another student interviewed for the video, says, “Skiing is much different than a wheelchair. You get a whole lot closer to the ground!” She describes the ways the program has helped her grow as a person and become more independent. “Even if you get up on the wrong side of the bed,” she adds, “you come up here and your whole day turns around!”
While some ASP students can ski using standard equipment, most use adaptive aids. For students with lower body paralysis or dysfunction and severe balance or motor control issues, mono- and bi-skis offer a seated method of skiing. Outriggers are miniature skis attached to a set of forearm crutches. For those with lower limb amputation or weakness, one standard ski is used with outriggers. Snowboarding is also available. The ASP provides private, one-on-one lessons tailored to address the specific needs of each student.
But, of course, there would be no program without its core of 250 volunteers. “The volunteers are everything!” says Matthew. “They bust their butts. They pick you up off the snow, time and time again, and, no matter what, they keep giving you positive influence.”
Fred Walling, a volunteer shown in the video as he skis tethered behind a student, says that skiing is twice as joyful when you do it with a student than when you do it by yourself. “Your turns have to be okay,” he says, “but the real turns you’re living are theirs.” He demonstrates following closely but unobtrusively behind as his student executes a graceful, confident turn of his own.
Being an ASP volunteer, says Ruthie Koval, who’s been one since 1998, requires an enormous amount of patience and understanding. “It’s a lot harder and more responsibility than you might think. The majority of our students are younger. You have to be quite fine-tuned. They arrive feeling differently every week. They could have had seizures the night before, or their cat might have died that day, and they can’t express that. We also need to know the side effects of all their medications—not because we administer them, because we don’t, but so that we can track those, too.”
Ruthie is certified as a regular ski instructor as well as an adaptive ski instructor; she trains the new ASP instructors. But she started out at ASP a rookie. “My son had multiple disabilities: seizures, mental retardation and some kind of autism. I started skiing with him when he was seven.” As a girl growing up in Switzerland, Ruthie skied to school every day; she also worked in ski resorts. So teaching her son to ski came naturally to her. “I didn’t know adaptive ski instruction—I didn’t even know there was such a thing—I just skied backwards with my son. He loved to ride the chair lift!”
She and her family moved to Santa Fe, and there, at the ski basin, they discovered the Adaptive Ski Program. “He’s basically my motivation as an instructor. My son died in a seizure, so I teach adaptive skiing in honor and memory of him. I transfer my love for my son to the kids.”
One of her current students, Colin, she’s skied with for 13 years. “I love working with all of them hands-on. That’s by far the best part of it all. Colin has Down syndrome. I tell you, he is a great skier! Every Sunday morning I look forward to skiing with him. We’ve even formed a group, which is rare. Sometimes I let him be the leader and do the warm-up moves. It’s a blast! They’re always so happy to be outside, in the snow and air, yelling all the way down the mountain, their parents taking pictures. I have one boy with cerebral palsy who comes every spring vacation with his family from Dallas. He skis on a slider, which is like a walker. He calls it his choo-choo train.” Public schools bring special ed classes up for instruction every year; different groups who work with children with cancer come, too.
The program also works with students with developmental delays, the blind and hearing impaired and those with critical illnesses such as AIDS. It’s a wide scope, and instructors have to be well trained. First-year instructors learn the many intricacies of teaching adaptive skiing. Then, as Katya says, “they go out with a veteran instructor their first season—we don’t just throw them to the wolves!” And instructors often take it on themselves to learn about a new adaptive ski aid, so they can help a specific student who needs that technique.
Nineteen-year-old Augusta Skroog, who started out as an ASP student herself, then advanced to junior instructor and now is a volunteer, is an ardent fan of the program and stresses how hard they’ve worked all these years to help students with disabilities like herself. “Skiing helps students be more confident. You feel like you’re not normal, then you learn to ski and you say, ‘Oh, hey, I can actually do something!’ I tell scared first-timers, ‘Take it one step at a time. We’re here to have fun, not to push you. We’ll go slowly, help you get comfortable, take you out for a run, and you’ll learn how to do the basic turns, then we’ll try more advanced terrain. Our goal is to make sure you have fun and you’re safe. It’ll be fine.’” She’s worked with one student, Isa, over the past three years, watching her improve and become progressively more independent. “She’s grown up and developed as a person, too, not just with skiing. I’m so proud of her!”
Winter season runs from late January to mid-March each year. And this past summer, due to students continually requesting it, ASP became year-round, now offering water skiing, kayaking, sailing, paddleboarding and swimming at local lakes. “Students and their families go camping together, cooking and getting to know each other better. It’s a very inclusive experience,” says Katya. “And equalizing. Some of the younger students, especially, really earn their bragging rights for completing the first successful water ski lap around the lake!”
Katya’s particularly proud of the program’s visibility. “One of the park rangers at the lake was blown away at the creativity of our instructors constructing wheelchair ramps on the beach!” she laughs.
ASP offers scholarships to students whose families have limited discretionary funds. “They’re struggling just to provide the assisted care, the medical therapy, the special equipment and medications,” says Katya. “Over sixty-five percent of our students, in fact, wouldn’t be able to participate without full or partial scholarships.” So ASP relies on the incredible generosity of its donors and its fundraising events in order to provide instruction, ski wear and access to the newest adaptive sports equipment to fit students’ individual needs. This winter season they’ll bring back their popular Snow Ball as well as the wreath sale, outside Kaune’s on Saturday, November 30, and Saturday, December 7.
Katya calls herself “the luckiest girl in the world” to have landed this job, which marries her passions for skiing and nonprofits. Asked if she ever cries as she watches the progress the students in the program make, she says, “Every time I see that video! It’s really empowering to be a part of something that gives people who wouldn’t otherwise have access to be up there in the mountains, on skis, the opportunity to experience freedom and fun and getting to move with such fluidity and grace.”
Ruthie, laughing at herself, says, “Whenever I meet someone new, I ask, ‘Are you a skier? Do you have any free time?’ It’s a great, great program. I’ll be very grateful if I can keep doing this for a long, long time more. I can’t wait for the first snowflake—I come alive this time of year. It’s the ultimate thing, watching the students being high on air!”
To learn more about the services of the Adaptive Ski Program or how to become a volunteer, go to their website adaptiveski.org. If you wish to make a donation to this wonderful organization, you can do so right online.