Peak Experience: Trio Gets Rocky Mountain High from Adaptive Skiing
By Susan Christensen
Health and Research News Service
On a jaunt to Colorado, Skylar Ellis of Clinton met kids from other countries, mastered the fine art of snowball fighting, and zipped down powdered peaks like she had been born to schuss.
So what was the best part of her trip? “Skiing with my mom,” says the 9-year-old.
Hurtling down a mountain with her daughter didn’t come naturally for Natalie Ellis – wheelchair users aren’t wild about steep slopes. But with the help of some specially designed ski equipment, Ellis embraced the challenge like she has all the other hurdles she has faced as a paraplegic.
“I never let anything stop me,” said Ellis, who was injured in a 1988 car accident. “I never want my disability to get in the way of my children having a normal life.
”Fortunately, adaptive technology has made a variety of sporting activities more accessible, says Ginny Boydston, director of therapeutic recreation at Methodist Rehabilitation Center in Jackson. Nowadays, everything from hockey to cycling can be accomplished with the right equipment and training.
Over the years, Boydston has introduced a variety of adaptive sports to Mississippians with disabilities. And Ellis was often first in line for the fun. “I was Ginny’s resident guinea pig for a number of years,” she says. “I’ve tried wheelchair racing, wheelchair tennis and water skiing. I even got my certification in scuba diving.”
Ellis jumped on the bandwagon again when Boydston proposed a trip to Breckinridge.
What’s more, Ellis, who is vice president and executive director of the Mississippi Paralysis Association, encouraged the association to help others participate in the opportunity, as well.
“We donated money to sponsor the trip because we like to promote sports among the disabled community,” Ellis said. “It makes the disabled person feel more independent and gives them a feeling of accomplishment when they succeed.
”Methodist and Ameristar Casino Vicksburg also contributed funding, which made it possible for Boydston’s program to provide lessons, equipment and lodging for three disabled skiers.
Joey Brinson of Brandon and Jim Chaney of Vicksburg joined Ellis for the February trip to a Breckinridge ski resort. And all pronounced it a peak experience. “It’s exciting,” said Brinson, 29, a paraplegic since a 1994 car accident. “On the steep part of the hill, I was like: Man!”
The trio began their lesson in sit-down skiing at the Breckinridge Outdoor Education Center (BOEC). Staff there fitted each with an adaptive ski, which is basically a bucket seat mounted over a double or single ski. They also were outfitted with outrigger poles, which are used for balance and braking.
Ellis and Chaney opted for a bi-ski (the version with the double skis), while Brinson chose the more challenging mono-ski.
After some initial instruction, the group boarded the ski lift (a feat in itself) and headed up the mountain for some on-the-slope training.
They began their runs tethered to ski instructors. But it wasn’t long before they were cut loose. “I didn’t know my instructor had let go until I did a sharp turn and he kept flying past me,” Brinson said. “I was like: OK!”
As a veteran sled hockey player, Brinson found it fairly easy to stay balanced. But Chaney, the only quadriplegic in the group, had to work to stay upright. “The balance was difficult because I don’t have trunk control,” explained Chaney, who damaged his spinal cord in a 2002 car accident.
Learning to turn proved to be the biggest challenge for the novice skiers. And the three took some tumbles before they got the hang of things. “A couple of times I was going backwards and I had to fall over,” Chaney said.
Ellis admits to the trip’s most spectacular face plant, but she brushed off her bruises and kept trying to get better. “By the end of the second day I was totally independent and ready to move to the next level of runs,” she said.
Ellis and Chaney spent their last day of lessons on the intermediate slopes. But Brinson went even higher, and found a racecourse to practice on. “I was trying to beat my time and I was pretty tired by the time I got to bottom of it,” he said. “It was like a slalom course with 10 poles. I wish I had had somebody to race.”
Brinson says he will definitely go skiing again. “I like the adrenaline of it,” he says.
Chaney and Ellis are interested in an encore visit, as well. Until then, they can recall the good times by viewing the more than 700 photographs Boydston snapped of their skiing.
“I’m so proud of everyone,” Boydston said. “It was like the best Christmas gift I could get to see them all skiing and to ski with them. They’ve all done great.”
Jim Chaney of Vicksburg steers his adaptive ski down the slopes of Breckinridge, Colorado.
Ginny Boydston, therapeutic recreation director at Methodist Rehabilitation Center, congratulates Jim Chaney on a successful run down the mountain.