People with disabilities able to enjoy outdoors year round with Adaptive Sports Program instructors

Cassidy Riddle, front, skis with instructor Jason Cline on the tether. Courtesy the Adaptive Sports Program

The power of nature includes the power to heal.

This is made clear by the thousands of people recovering from physical, mental and emotional trauma through the outdoor activities run by the state nonprofit organization known as the Adaptive Sports Program.

Adaptive Sports Program takes people suffering from a wide range of ailments into the wild, providing opportunities for summer camping, fishing, water skiing, hiking and rock climbing. But it is perhaps best known for its extensive skiing and snowboarding programs operating at Sandia Peak and Ski Santa Fe.

People with spinal injuries, veterans missing legs or feet or others with lower body issues are placed in an apparatus called a “sit-ski,” or bucket ski, with a “tender” behind them attached by tethers who assist them down the slopes. The blind are guided with a wooden pole held at their waist by two aids.

Colin Holmes, 36, is autistic, but has been skiing with the group since he was 8.

“It means a lot to me,” Holmes said. “It’s about being with people who make you happy and becoming comfortable with other people and interacting with them. That’s how you become a good person.”

The participants are always matched with the same instructors to build a trusting relationship. Ruthie Getz Koval has been Holmes’ guide for many years.

“I’ve been skiing with people with disabilities for some 40 years, including 20 years with [Adaptive Sports Program],” Koval said. “But, being with the athletes gives me more than I can give them. It makes me very happy. It’s an enormously gratifying feeling.”

It is a challenging role, though. The people face serious physical issues, as well as mental challenges. A great deal of responsibility is placed on the coaches, who receive training.

Christian Porter, 25, is another participant with autism. He has skied for about 13 years through the program.

“I love skiing so much,” Porter said. “I like the speed, to ski fast. I think I’m really good at it, too. I’ve made new friends and it gives me confidence in other parts of my life.”

Skiing with Porter is Fred Klinghoffer, who has been with teh Adaptive Sports Program for 15 years.

“It’s been a marvelous opportunity to make new friends and has become an annual part of my life,” Klinghoffer said. “Seeing people like Christian and Colin develop both their physical and emotional skills has been wonderful.”

Chris Collier is one of the longest-running instructors. He began in 1972 at Ski Apache near Ruidoso, just six months after the program was launched at Winter Park, Colo.

“It’s so much more challenging than teaching normal skiers that we call it adaptive teaching,” Collier said. “You have to be flexible and innovative.”

A standout among the skiers is Mario Chavez of Albuquerque’s South Valley, who participates in a new sit-down dual ski rig. A veteran of six years, he rips down the slopes, carving giant slalom turns. He was born with progressive muscular dystrophy, but still skied as a kid.

“I was telling my physical therapist how passionate I’d been about skiing, and she asked me why I wasn’t still doing it,” Chavez said. “I said, ‘Well, look at me; I’m in a wheelchair.’ She said, “That doesn’t matter. Why don’t you sign up for the Adaptive Sports Program?’ I’ve been hooked ever since.”

Chavez felt the program helped him overcome depression because he wasn’t skiing. Chavez said the view of the mountain range is worth it alone.

Instructors Alec Tosani and Jason Cline, both of Santa Fe, worked with Chavez from the start and developed a great relationship.

“It takes a few years to get really in sync with a skier as hard charging as Mario,” Tosani said. “You have to learn how he likes to ski, to anticipate his moves. Most of what we do as the tether, it’s more about good technique than use of strength.”

Cline also serves as the Adaptive Sports Program operations director and is one of the two paid staff members.

“We went through an extensive training program before we were actually tethering anyone in a sit ski to try and minimize that risk,” Cline said, “but as Mario said, skiing is a risky sport, and we had some falls here and there. But to see the smile on Mario’s face as we are flying down the slope keeps me coming back for more.”

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Most students are enrolled in a six-week program at a $240 cost, but scholarships are also provided. Even with all the donated services, Adaptive Sports Program’s year-round budget is about $300,000. A chunk of it comes from grant organizations, such as the Disabled Veterans Charitable Trust, and from the Snowball, a major annual fundraiser.

Every year, new participants show up, and some have new issues and conditions, so the need is growing. For instance, a ski program for veterans was launched a few years ago, and many of them deal with post-traumatic stress disorder.

Niyo Hollander, 44, is a prime example. He grew up skiing at Pajarito, but was injured in Iraq as a combat medic. Hollander said he is still in pain most of the time, but staying active keeps his mind off of it.

“I consider myself lucky compared to some of my other brothers and sisters. I have mostly full function,” Hollander said. “But I have a multitude of issues and it’s not an easy life. I needed something to replace the things that I had lost. I remembered the thrill that came with skiing growing up and I also needed to get more active — especially in winter.”

Hollander tried to ski upright, but it was too difficult for him. “My body just wouldn’t let me; I was fighting is more than I was enjoying skiing,” he said.

Hollander switched to a ski bike and he took to it.

“The bike takes a load off me, though you don’t really sit on it,” Hollander said. “You’re more on your feet. You have to use your head and shoulders to bring the bike around and shift balance. You need to be leaning forward and head up, as in a good ski posture. You must use the edges of your skis to turn, so really it’s not far removed from regular skiing.”

Bea Marie Sullivan of Truth or Consequences is in her second year of the program, and she finds it healing “physically, spiritually, mentally, emotionally.” When Sullivan was in the Army, she was raped by two servicemen, and she struggled with the trauma from it.

“Skiing puts you in the moment, and makes you mindful of the blue skies, sunshine, fresh air, the snow,” Sullivan said. “It is also helping me with my self-confidence. I am in recovery. I have six months clean and sober, and this is big-time spiritual rewards. I have been working really hard on myself.”

The program has a pool of some 300 volunteers, including those in its summer activities, but the group is always looking for more help and funding. For more information, visit www.adaptive or call 505-570-5710.