The ranch at the National Ability Center near Park City, Utah, trains disabled visitors in sporting activities.
The ranch at the National Ability Center near Park City, Utah, trains disabled visitors in sporting activities.
National Ability Center

Willing and Able

Utah's National Ability Center trains disabled visitors in sporting activities.
Utah's National Ability Center trains disabled visitors in sporting activities. (National Ability Center)
By Gary Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 3, 2006

Against a background of soft chanting, Marla Berkow instructed the group to spread out on mats across the floor and stretch their limbs -- legs, arms, feet and all. "Let the inner light within you shine," she whispered.

Never mind that Greg Shaw, back in the corner, had no use of his legs. Undeterred, the 16-year-old lay on his back, puffing his barrel chest upward and reaching his arms to the edge of the mat. Nearby, 6-year-old Morrison Haslock twisted her arms, rendered limp by a prenatal disorder, behind her back. Sam Blakeley, 13, snapped off his prosthetic lower leg to make bending easier.

The yoga session at Utah's National Ability Center (NAC) was an exercise in gritty determination. Just like everything else at the NAC.

A cluster of timber buildings perched on a hill near Park City, about 30 miles east of Salt Lake City, the center trains all manner and age of disabled sports enthusiasts in skiing and other recreational activities, including mountain biking and horseback riding. From its scrappy start in the mid-1980s as a small school teaching locals with disabilities how to maneuver the slopes, the complex has grown into one of the country's broadest-reaching nonprofit organizations (most of the funding comes from foundations or private donors) specializing in sports and therapy for the physically and mentally challenged.

During my visit last month, I wanted to see the center in action, particularly since it's a mecca for disabled travelers-cum-sports enthusiasts. But I was also drawn by another feature: the opportunity for able-bodied visitors to inhabit, if only briefly, the world of the disabled.

I watched as some horseback riders were blindfolded, while skiers had an arm tied to one side. The center recommends the exercise for anyone who wants to experience the viewpoint of the physically or mentally challenged. Relatives or friends of the disabled are especially encouraged to try it. "As a learning tool, it's invaluable," explained Meeche White, the NAC's co-founder and chief executive officer.

This will explain how I found myself one morning halfway up a climbing wall with my eyes closed, experiencing a mild but very real panic. After two days of watching training sessions and chatting with participants and staff members, I wanted to experience sports from the viewpoint of the disabled. But I'm getting ahead of the story.

Travelers from outside the region make up a third of the center's patrons, arriving from far-flung corners with different agendas. Solo skiers and athletes hone their skills with personal trainers, while groups also partake, often survivors of cancer or other life-changing events who want a place to bond. Families come seeking distractions in which every member can participate.

As she stood in Park City's Olympic Park cheering on the NAC's bobsled team, White summed up the center's mission: "We take whoever comes in the door and give them whatever it takes to engage in a sport on their own or with their families without our assistance."

In fact, some visitors have been so drawn to the place that they've relocated just to be close to the NAC facilities. Shaw, the 16-year-old skier, is an example. His family first came from Florida on a ski trip a few years ago, but when they saw the opportunities at the center, they moved here.

Matt Profitt, a 38-year-old cancer survivor whose right leg was amputated three years ago, visited the NAC two years ago on a trip from Delaware to take ski lessons. The allure of the slopes, rock climbing and other sports persuaded him to move. One night I caught him in action as a bobsled brakeman, the guy who gives the sled a running push and then whooshes downhill.

The center's doors are open year-round, but most travelers come during the ski season. I arrived as the first snows of the season were whirling in, though the slopes weren't quite ready. No matter. The NAC campus has so many distractions -- a lodge with accessible rooms, a cafeteria, an outdoor obstacle course, riding stables, mountain bike trails, a gym and a climbing wall -- there's easily enough to fill a multi-day stay.

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