Adapting to Success
Photography by Rebekah Stevens
At first glance, the dark brown portable building sitting slopeside at Park City Mountain Resort (PCMR) looks out of place for a classroom. It is far removed from the traditional ideals of school. Inside the portable unit, the warm, damp air reeks of soggy ski boots. Puddles of water accumulate by the door and empty cubby holes indicate that the equipment normally stored there is currently in use. Here at the National Ability Center’s (NAC) ski facility, children and adults spend their time learning in an outdoor environment, which explains the seemingly deserted building.
Home to the world’s largest adaptive ski program, this facility at PCMR provides winter opportunities and adventures for children and adults with cognitive and physical disabilities. For many, even native Utahns, this is the first chance to try a winter sport like skiing or snowboarding — not for lack of interest, but for lack of financial or tangible resources.
The NAC is a year-round non-profit organization that offers access to more than 20 recreational programs for people with disabilities. Founded in 1985 by Meeche White and Peter Badewitz, one dream co-existed between the two: to make recreation open to all abilities by providing affordable sports within a supportive community. Many of the NAC’s programs take place in the mountains, where the satellite ski facility is located, but its headquarters and some of its popular activities, such as horseback riding or the indoor climb-ing wall, are located on a private 26-acre ranch, the land generously donated by an anonymous benefactor in 1996.
The winter programs at the NAC enable each participant, whether he/she has developmental disabilities or physical impairments, to uncover his/her own world of self-growth, development, confidence and discovery. Here, ability isn’t measured by a classification system of colored shapes found on trail maps; ability is measured individually. Physical challenges encourage participants to push beyond their physical or mental limits and gauge success by the smiles on their faces.
The National Ability Center promotes self-discovery and helps build self-esteem. We’ve been around for 23 years and want to share our experience and ensure that there are services like the NAC provides across the country,” says the NAC’s new CEO, Dale Schoon, reflecting on the facility’s core mission. Dale replaces Meeche White, co-founder and former CEO of the NAC, and comes from a background of athletic roles, most recently with the U.S. Ski & Snowboard Association. He is excited to share his passion for outdoor adventures and challenges with each participant. “We want to provide an opportunity to get [people with disabilities] out of their comfort zones. The National Ability Center can help people take a big step toward their dreams, which are getting active and moving forward to be more involved in the community.”
Take, for instance, Allie Schneider, a 19-year veteran of the NAC’s programs. Introduced to the programs at age 4, Allie has become a pioneer in the world’s first adaptive bobsled team, a sport she is lobbying to have included in the Paralympics. “To be in a program that could be part of the Paralympics is really amazing, and it’s an honor to be a part of that history,” she says. She may be the youngest athlete and the only female on the team, but her involvement plays a deeper role within the organization. “I am the Communications and Events Assistant,” Allie notes, speaking of her behind-the-scenes role spreading regional and national awareness about disabled recreation at the NAC. “The National Ability Center has changed the perception that people with disabilities can’t do certain things. Once you come to the NAC and see the participants in the programs, you really see their abilities to do amazing things.”
Of course, “amazing” is just one of the few ways to describe the challenges some of the athletes face. Nicole Roundy, a 22-year-old above-the-knee amputee, began snowboarding at 19 when she decided to switch from skiing. With the help of the NAC, she took snowboard lessons from an instructor at Brighton Ski Resort and soon fell in love with the sport. “It was a long learning curve. But I got into snowboarding, and it became something I could do, and I thought maybe it was something I could be good at, too. I’m stoked to get on the mountain and ride around.” Her commitment and passion to the sport helped her earn silver at the Adaptive Snowboard World Championships in spring 2008, and has put her in a position to help launch a new branch of recreation supported by the NAC. Adaptive snowboarding’s new home has already drawn interest from winter supporters and people with disabilities interested in learning to ride. “I would love to see more disabled women get involved,” adds Allie.
Whether the NAC is creating new programs or supporting its longer-running sports, its athletes have consistently placed among the top ranks of competitive teams. Greg Shaw, an 18-year-old member of the Park City sled hockey program, brought home the inaugural title for the Western Sled Hockey League with the rest of his team in early 2008. While Greg has worked his way to the U.S. Disabled National Team only two years after coming on board, it’s perhaps the personal victories he’s most proud of. “When we’ve played a hard match and come off the ice, I’m just overwhelmed. I never thought I’d play a team sport.”
Local as these athletes may be, the NAC has become a landmark within recreational communities all over the country, expanding far beyond its support in Park City. Founded on dreams and dedication, the organization’s principle mission has single-handedly helped thousands of individuals develop personally and incorporate positive changes within their lives. And it is the same community of individuals that has made the NAC’s dream come true, turning its goals into reality and shaping new opportunities for future generations to discover.
Stephanie Nitsch is a Park City local who enjoys playing, eating and writing about snow.