On the morning of Thursday, March 3, a Taos Municipal Schools bus loaded with special-needs students from Ranchos Elementary parked at the roundabout at the bottom of the Rio Hondo Learning Center in Taos Ski Valley. . The executive director of the Taos winter sports team, Kristi Vine, was already there, awaiting their arrival.
When the students started to get off the bus, additional staff from the team showed up to help the kids upstairs to the boot fitting room and get into position with all the gear they needed. involves a day of skiing and snowboarding. A particular degree of mindfulness is needed here to help students prepare for the mountains. Some students may not register nonverbal or verbal cues due to a physical impairment or cognitive challenge.
Some questions or concerns for ski instructors who specialize in adaptive skiing might have to ask themselves: At what level is their body not functioning? Are they completely dependent on another person to move? Can they pull or push against your hands?
The tools used by adaptive ski instructors range from as simple as hula hoops to as complex as a device called a steering bar, a kind of modified walker welded to a snowboard that the student can hold on to. These types of rigs are made locally by Moritz Brinkama.
Ranchos Elementary staff pointed out which kids were “bolters,” kids who, given the chance, without the most secure physical and visual connection to their chaperone, could take a break. Again, a simple call in this situation would be of little or no use, requiring instructors to take extra precautions. Letricia Lovato, a special education teacher in Ranchos, said “it takes an army”, rather than a village, to deal with all the specific challenges they face when trying to get their students to the mountains to enjoy a day of winter sports.
While the kids glided down the slopes with their instructor, the Ranchos staff stood by at the bottom of the caterpillars (a treadmill for beginners taking them down a gentle slope) for any sort of eventuality.
Lovato spoke about the partnership between Ranchos Elementary’s Life Skills Program and TSV’s Adaptive Program.
“My main goal is to always include children in community outings. The hardest thing for our parents is to take them out of the community, because they are not used to liking a lot of… it just happens a lot of things that we take for granted. I want to see my kids in the community. So what I do is try to create opportunities for them. Things that we can do here in Taos like the hiking, so we hike in the spring, in the fall we go swimming. And then, of course, skiing is the most important thing,” Lovato said.
The school reached out to Peter Donahue, TWST’s adaptive program director. The story goes that in 1986, Donahue volunteered to teach a girl to ski who had contracted polio. He had the repair shop techs strap a pair of skis to a walker, so Gina could get Rubezahl down. Ernie Blake saw Donahue working with Gina and insisted that he be paid for his work, and the adaptive program was born.
Ranchos Elementary has been bringing students to ski at TSV for over eight years.
While the rest of the students were still helped by staff to put on their boots, Donahue prepared himself on his electric bike (equipped with large tires) in order to cycle up a bunny hill and cross to Pioneer Hill, where he would serve. ski guide for a blind student. It’s an act of complete trust between guide and athlete, especially considering that people pay top dollar for a pair of Smith polarized ski goggles, for optical clarity to see the nuances and texture in a wide field of white – rendered dull by clouds or blindingly bright from glare. Essentially, the guide should replace a proper pair of goggles. As such, the guide must be as descriptive as possible and create a complete visual landscape of the mountain. The athlete will have to rely on this description in real time, in a constantly changing environment. Then, on steeper terrain, the two will have to negotiate their speed and distance in order to stay within earshot.
The arrangement sounds unbelievable, but a former Taos resident, Danelle Umstead, who is almost completely blind and has multiple sclerosis, won three bronze medals at the Paralympic Games.
Donahue was using tethers to give his student, who is just beginning to understand turns, the feeling of descending and turning. It is expected that she will be able to ski on her own one day with the help of a guide.
But is the purpose of the adapted program to create Paralympic athletes or to give people with disabilities a fun time on the snow? There is the clear humanistic effort to provide rich and fulfilling times for underserved communities. Who can forget their first time hitting the slopes and how awesome it was? But as an added bonus and essential part of the program, the skiing or snowboarding process is a form of physical and cognitive therapy for students.
At the top of the Pioneer Lift, Taos Municipal Schools District physical therapist Susan Consolloy explained how the snow sports movement benefits students:
“In snowboarding you do things quite symmetrically, both legs together, your body kind of bends together, it’s very fluid. The ski is less symmetrical, or asymmetrical. So some kids don’t have the ability to do something asymmetrical, like walking up and down stairs, it’s really hard for them. There may be a small cable between our hemispheres. And it’s called the corpus callosum. And in some cases it’s not that big. And when it’s not as developed in one hemisphere and the other hemisphere is not as balanced. So doing something asymmetrical is more difficult. So when they do that and train in that environment, it really helps them learn to shift weights, so their balance increases accordingly.
The enduring image – and sound – of the day was that of a student driven Pioneer by Kristi Vine. The student screamed the whole time, half fear and half excitement and joy. After the race, TWST coaches and Ranchos staff would check on the student and see if she had the guts to step up and do it all over again. As Lovato explained, “many times you’ll see kids crying and being scared. But after a while they get used to it. And then they’re like rockstars.