Disabled fly down the ski slopes with the help of specialized equipment

January 09, 1994|By Greg Tasker | Greg Tasker,Staff Writer

MERCERSBURG, Pa. -- His first time on the ski slopes here, a short drive north of Hagerstown, 10-year-old Richard Marshall eases down a gently rolling and freshly powdered hill. He leans right, left and then veers around a barren grove of trees.

In his own words, he's "flying."

The Silver Spring boy is thrilled at the independence he has found gliding down the beginners slope at snow-covered Two Top Mountain, where others, less sure of themselves, wobble and fall.

Richard, who is partially paralyzed, gets around in a wheelchair, but like a dozen other disabled children and adults on this particular day at the Whitetail Ski Area, he is learning to ski. "It was fun. I felt like I had control," Richard said.

A variety of equipment and assistance is available to disabled skiers. Richard, for example, used a mono-ski, a single ski with a seat or bucket attached. The mono-ski gives those who have good upper-body strength balance and trunk motion on the slopes.

Richard, a fifth-grader, was among 100 disabled people from Maryland, Washington, Virginia and Pennsylvania who learned to ski or honed skills during United Airlines' Ski Spectacular for Disabled Skiers.

The weeklong event offered those with disabilities a chance to experience the thrill of skiing, build confidence and interact with families.

"When someone becomes disabled, they think their life is over," said Bill Demby, a Vietnam War veteran who is well-known for his role in an award-winning television commercial about a double-leg amputee playing in a pickup basketball game.

"We have a saying, 'If I can do this, I can do anything.' We're teaching confidence through sports -- confidence they can take to other parts of their lives," said Mr. Demby, a spokesman for National Handicapped Sports, one of the event's sponsors.

Those with more crippling disabilities can use bi-skis, a contraption similar to the mono-ski but with two skis. Those who have some impairments but are able to stand can use skis and outriggers, instead of poles. Outriggers are forearm crutches with ski tips attached to the bottom.

Vernon Griffin, a 29-year-old blind skier from Towson, uses sighted guides to zigzag down slopes.

Guides, wearing orange bibs designating their roles, ski ahead of blind skiers and call out directions and obstacles.

"What works well for me are clock directions. Eleven o'clock means a little bit to the left," said Mr. Griffin, who began skiing several years ago and is now at an intermediate level.

Like other disabled people, Mr. Griffin, a rehabilitation teacher for the blind in Baltimore, initially had doubts about learning to ski.

"I thought there's no way. How am I going to be able to do that? I just never even thought about skiing because of my blindness," he said. "Now it's such a rush to have a run down the slope and do so well and not fall. I wish more blind people would get involved."

Ed Harrison, information manager for the Rockville-based National Handicapped Sports, said the group, which promotes physical activity and sports among the disabled, invited veterans groups, schools and organizations for the disabled to the weeklong, free event.

"Some have to be talked into skiing by other disabled," Mr. Harrison said. "Most are newcomers, but they tend to enjoy it and want to go back out. There's always a few who don't want to come back."

Don't count Frank Vanik among the latter.

Mr. Vanik, a 26-year-old resident of Rosedale in Baltimore County who is weakened by multiple sclerosis, began skiing last year. He had skied before MS limited his energy level about four years ago.

"It's just as exciting this way," Mr. Vanik said about using the mono-ski. "You turn the same, fall the same. It's really exciting to do something so close to what an able-bodied person can do."

Lisa Wolfe, Whitetail's communications manager, said the resort's participation in the event has broadened the knowledge of ski instructors, lift operators and others, many of whom have attended instructional clinics about the disabled on their own time.

"It also has created an awareness to other skiers on the mountain," she said. "They can see disabled people doing better than they're doing."

Whitetail has equipment available for the disabled throughout the season.

Mr. Harrison said only 10 percent of the nation's ski areas have equipment available for the disabled.

Wisp Ski Resort in Western Maryland and Ski Roundtop in Lewisberry, Pa., have outriggers available. Both allow disabled skiers with their own equipment to use the slopes.

Ski Liberty in Fairfield, Pa., refers disabled skiers to TASS, Traversing Adaptive Ski School, which conducts programs throughout the season at area resorts.

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