Kismet on the slopes
Forty-seven years ago, Hal O’Leary volunteered to teach children at a local hospital how to ski, giving a serendipitous start to a career as a pioneer for athletes with disabilities.
It was 1970, the winter after Woodstock and just months before the Apollo 13 crew would make its heroic return to Earth. And in Colorado, Hal O’Leary, a young Canadian ski instructor working at Winter Park Ski School, had volunteered to teach a group of visiting children how to ski.
This, however, was not a typical group of kids looking for a carefree day on the slopes. These 23 children were patients at The Children’s Hospital of Denver who wanted to experience the thrill of the mountain despite having arm and leg amputations.
“Honestly, I had no idea how this could be done,” said O’Leary. “All I wanted to do was to help kids have fun skiing.”
Adaptive skiing for amputees in the U.S. had been around since the early 1950s, when Jim Winthers, a World War II veteran, first started teaching injured soldiers to ski on one leg. But for O’Leary, there were no formal teaching methods, let alone the proper skiing equipment, to do the same with children.
O’Leary instead turned to medical textbooks for guidance and gained a rudimentary understanding of the challenges faced by amputees. He then spent days in his garage modifying skis and poles to properly accommodate the needs of his young students.
For O’Leary, that eight-week class with the kids from the Children’s Hospital — and the subsequent free lessons he started offering to other ski students with disabilities — began a career spent pioneering adaptive skiing. Just a few years later, in 1974, O’Leary would write The Winter Park Amputee Ski Teaching System, an adaptive ski manual that has since been translated into Japanese, Swedish, and Spanish and is used worldwide.
O’Leary’s legacy lives on today through the National Sports Center for the Disabled (NSCD), which remains headquartered at Winter Park Resort and traces its roots directly to his first ski lessons in 1970. Its annual fundraiser, the Wells Fargo Ski Cup, celebrates its 42nd year Feb. 24–26.
In discussing his career with Sports Illustrated in 1995, shortly after his induction into the U.S. National Ski and Snowboard Hall of Fame, O’Leary reflected on those early experiences on the slopes. “I could see what a difference it was making in their lives,” he said. “People were leaving here saying, ‘Hal, I used to hate my body. Now I feel graceful … I’m moving … I can feel the wind in my face.’ ”
‘Empowering the human spirit through sport'
The NSCD remains keenly focused on adaptive skiing and its mission of “empowering the human spirit through sport.” This goal becomes reality for more than 3,400 children and adults with disabilities who visit its facilities each year. Today, the alpine ski program is one of 20 different therapeutic sports experiences the organization offers throughout the year. Others include rock climbing, kayaking, horseback riding, and programs for military veterans.
To help cover costs, the NSCD teams up with Wells Fargo each February to host the Wells Fargo Ski Cup, a weekend of friendly and competitive ski racing, a silent auction and other fund raising activities. (Watch the story of one of this year’s competitors, Tyler Carter, in the 3-minute video above.)
“The Wells Fargo Ski Cup continues to be one of our most important and largest fundraisers, and we’re so grateful for Wells Fargo’s continued support,” said Diane Eustace, marketing director at the NSCD. “Through the annual event, we’re able to raise more than $250,000 to support year-round therapeutic recreation programming at the NSCD for children and adults with disabilities.”
A legacy lives on
The transformational impact of the mountain for people with disabilities, the one that O’Leary saw back in 1970 with his very first students, was experienced first-hand when Mark and Dana Shewmaker visited Winter Park last winter with their six-year-old son, Will.
Will was born missing some of his abdominal muscles, which causes weakness in his core and difficulty with balance. With the encouragement of Will’s doctor, the Shewmakers booked a family vacation to Colorado and signed him up for ski lessons with the NSCD.
“We didn’t know if he would be able to ski, but we wanted him to try it,” said Mark Shewmaker. “For Will, and a lot of kids with disabilities, everyday activities often require a tremendous amount of perseverance with very little reward. So to see him figure out how to ski with just a few days of lessons was an incredible experience for him and one that provided a rewarding sense of accomplishment.”
The days on the slopes with the ski instructors at the NSCD have had a lasting effect, helping give Will the confidence to go horseback riding, join a T-ball team and try karate. It’s not surprising that the Shewmaker family is headed back to Winter Park again this year, and the now seven-year-old can’t wait to get back on the slopes.
“I really liked skiing last year. It was fun!” Will said. “By the last day, I was able to take one of the big lifts with my instructor and ski by myself back to the bottom in 10 minutes. I’m hoping to do it even faster this year!”