Could she dig deep, beat the mountain?
The ski instructor’s name tag said it all:
“ONE LEGGED JOHN.”
In an instant, I knew this was the perfect place for me. There would be no feeling awkward about the fact that I was in a wheelchair. I was about to embark on the journey of a lifetime with some straight shooters who hadn’t let physical disabilities interfere with anything, especially the ability to ski.
I’ve used a wheelchair since a 1979 car accident left me paralyzed at age 6. When I wheeled into the Adaptive Snowsports Center at Greek Peak near Cortland, N.Y., it was filled with people just like me getting ready to ski and countless volunteers who were there to help make that happen. Within 20 minutes, they were fitting me to the monoski that would become my second skin over the next five days. It was time for the Weekly Challenge—an all-expenses-paid program created to teach adaptive skiing and snowboarding—to begin.
I couldn’t have asked for a better instructor than volunteer Joe Hart. He helped me transfer from my wheelchair into the monoski, made sure I strapped in correctly and explained how everything worked. He suggested I find another place for my phone, other than the pocket on the arm of my ski jacket.
“I don’t want to hurt your feelings, but you will fall, and I don’t want you to break your phone,” he said. That was the understatement of the year.
How to fall correctly was part of my instruction. Tucking in my arms was the key to avoid a separated shoulder or broken arm.
With my outriggers on (short skis strapped onto each arm) I felt awkward and clumsy. I’m so used to having my hands free to steer my every move. Now they seemed terribly restricted.
After about an hour I got used to the skis on my arms, and the motions started to flow as I made my way down a tiny hill for practice. I even started to turn at the end of the run in an effort to keep upright. I had no idea how critical this move would be a few days later.
After several falls and a few good runs, I was finally skiing! I couldn’t wait to get a full day in and accomplish the goal I had set out to achieve: to learn how to monoski so I could go back with my husband and kids and ski together as a family.
OUT OF MY COMFORT ZONE
It was 15 below zero the next morning, but we had over an inch of fresh powder, bright sunshine and blue skies. With the help of my instructor, we took the “Magic Carpet” conveyor belt to the top of the bunny slope, and that morning I mastered the short run, stopping at the end without falling over. I was proud of myself, almost a little cocky as we headed to the bigger “Boardwalk” hill. It was a longer run, but I wasn’t nervous.
I bombed straight down the hill and had two great runs before lunch. The speed felt amazing as I whizzed toward the bottom, leaning forward and using my outriggers to steer. I managed to stay upright until the very end. I fell over, but it wasn’t a total wipeout. I couldn’t wait for more.
My instructors were cheering for me and thrilled with my progress. I was so glad I stepped out of my comfort zone to give this a try.
As we took a break for lunch, I didn’t realize my glory would be short-lived. Sailing straight down the hill wasn’t going to work on a slope any bigger than the Boardwalk. Now I had to learn how to put my turns together to weave back and forth so I’d have control and be able to stop at the end.
As I watched the monoski instructors and tried to follow their directions, it felt impossible as I continued to fall over and over again.
Although they taught me how to get up independently with my outriggers, my team told me to save my energy. They continued to scoop me up and help me start again. Joe carefully analyzed and instructed every run. He was just as determined as I was to make this work. I wasn’t leaning forward enough and kept pulling my outriggers off the ground. After a few hours, I was getting worse instead of improving. My body was starting to ache from all the falls. I felt desperate and defeated.
“How ’bout we call it a day?” said Joe. “We’ll start fresh tomorrow.”
I felt like a failure. I was overwhelmed and angry with myself because it just didn’t seem to click. My eyes welled up with tears, but I was determined not to let them see me cry.
Later that afternoon we all sat in the lounge, and I watched regular skiers make their way down one of the black diamond trails. I would be lying if I said I didn’t feel envious as I watched them whisk down the mountain with ease using their legs and ski poles. As the tears began to flow another instructor reassured me, “You can do this!” I wasn’t sure I believed him.
ME AGAINST THE MOUNTAIN
I fell into bed exhausted that night. I was drained. As soon as I heard my husband’s voice on the phone, I couldn’t stop crying. He encouraged me to be careful but keep trying and not give up.
After some rest I was determined not to let this get the best of me. When we pulled up to the ski resort the next day, my heart skipped a beat. “Oh, no. There it is!” I said gazing at Alpha, the next run I’d have to conquer. It was me against the mountain. I was determined not to let the mountain win.
The bunny hills were closed that day, so Alpha was the only option. It’s one of the beginner hills at Greek Peak, but to me it seemed like an Olympic-size slope.
Getting to the top was the first task. I skied right up to the chair lift and they stopped it and pulled the chair to the side. Once my monoski was situated, the chair came right behind me, and up we went.
The view was incredible—a brilliant sky and ripples of snow as far as I could see.
“Isn’t this great!” said my instructor Joe. “Take it all in.”
For a moment I got to forget about the mechanics of skiing and remembered why I love activities like this. Just like horseback riding, parasailing and zip lining, a monoski can take me places I could never go in my chair. It meant freedom.
On the count of three, I shifted my weight forward and put my outriggers down, and off the lift we went. I’m not scared of heights, but sitting at the edge of that mountain was intimidating. The bottom was nowhere in sight, and there was only one way down.
Joe instructed me to take it one chunk at a time and ease my way down the slope. I kept crashing as I tried to turn. Over and over, I kept falling. As much as I wanted to conquer this, I also didn’t want to injure my arms.
After a brief consult on the side of the mountain, Joe decided to thumb-tether me. He’d hold onto the back of my monoski with his thumbs and give me verbal direction as he skied with me.
We flew down the mountain together like that the rest of the day. I finally started to feel the correct rhythm and movements without the fear of getting hurt.
Joe really wanted me to experience the top of the mountain. By this time, I had total faith in him and knew I was in good hands.
“I’m game,” I said.
We took two ski lifts to the very top of Greek Peak. The view was stunning. The trees were caked in snow that glistened like diamonds in the afternoon sun. Although I knew I wouldn’t be skiing down the mountain independently, I was so proud of myself at that moment. I hadn’t given up.
As we made our way down the mountain, it was a fast and steady pace. Joe called out our moves, “Right. Neutral. Left. Neutral.” We weaved back and forth, going faster than I’d ever imagined.
We sped down the tree-lined hill, Joe thumb-tethering me the whole way. My heart was racing by the time we reached the bottom. What a rush. Now, I finally understood why people love to ski.
Between the beauty of the mountain and the thrill of the ride down, I realized why this group is so dedicated to showing people like me how to learn to love the sport.
It didn’t really sink in until I was home, but I discovered it is OK to adjust my goals. I didn’t need to master monoskiing my first week. I learned that Whitetail Resort in Mercersburg, Pa., offers free adaptive lessons so I’ll be able to continue what I started.
My new goal is to get good enough to go back to Greek Peak with my family for a weekend of skiing and show my instructors how far I’ve come. I think they will be proud.
ON THE NET: gpadaptive.org
Stacy Rounds is The Free Lance–Star’s marketing manager. She can be reached at email@example.com.