Willing and Able
Disabilities Are No Barrier to Fun at This Utah 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.

The calm atmosphere on the 40-acre complex, with its stunning views of the Wasatch Mountains, belies an impressive multifaceted program. The staff of 80 full- and part-time trainers, supplemented by dozens of volunteers, provided more than 21,000 training sessions last year.

Kristen Caldwell, a sports therapist who oversees the NAC ski program, led this non-skier on a tour of the ski center. The lodge was packed with equipment retrofitted for the disabled, including outriggers, ski poles with a sliding platform especially designed for those with agility challenges; mono skis, which resemble small sleds and are used by those who have difficulty standing; and tethers, which trainers attach to skiers to help guide them downhill.

"You'd be amazed how many folks come to us with no hope that they could ever ski and end up, after some training, managing the slopes quite well on their own," Caldwell said.

Some trainers specialize in therapies for those with more severe challenges. Kim Desautels, an occupational therapist from North Carolina, is an expert in hippotherapy, a treatment in which a horse is used to elicit movements in patients. It's sometimes prescribed for those with neuromuscular problems. With the help of two trainers, Desautels propped her patients in various positions on a bareback horse, including backward, sideways and standing up. Eventually the patients adjust to the horse's gait and other movements.

Salt Lake City resident Jerry Green, 59, who has difficulty walking because of multiple sclerosis, told me the treatment had helped him regain feeling in his legs. Following an hour-long session riding backward and sideways on Captain, one of the NAC's horses, he explained why. "Somehow after a long time in a wheelchair I forgot how to walk," he said. "The horse helps my body recall what a gait feels like. After a couple of months of this treatment, I can already stand far longer than I ever thought I would be able to."

At every turn, I met an NAC patron with a story. I spent an evening watching a Salt Lake City "quad rugby" team, a group of amateur athletes in wheelchairs practicing the rough-and-tumble sport, and came across Una Taufa. As a teenager, the muscular Hawaiian had been hit during a football game and left paralyzed from the neck down. Through years of therapy, he had regained partial feeling in his limbs. Now 22 and a student, he rediscovered his first love. "I can't get enough of rugby," he said. "It's the closest I can get to playing football."

One afternoon in an NAC hallway, 21-year-old Ali Schneider from Salt Lake City leaned on her crutches and reflected on her try-anything-once approach to sports. Paralyzed from the waist down at childbirth, she was brought to the NAC's ski center as a 4-year-old by her parents. "I looked down the mountains at all the things I could hit," she said. "Of course, I was scared."

She pushed on, eventually mastering mono-skiing, which allowed her to sit as she rocketed downhill. Encouraged by sports-minded parents and NAC trainers, she moved to water-skiing, biking and horseback riding. Now, Schneider has found her niche: bobsledding. "There is no thrill like hitting those curves at rocket speed," she laughed. "It is so me."

Reflecting on these sagas made me curious about how disabled athletes cope with challenges. So when Desautels, the hippotherapy expert, invited me to try a mini-therapy, I jumped at the chance. It seemed like an easy place to start. With the help of Desautels and a couple of trainers, I mounted one of the horses backward. I later switched to a sideways mount, allowing my legs to dangle along the side of the horse. For a few minutes, Desautels guided me and the horse around the stable. Back on my feet, I could feel the rhythm of the horse's gait in my legs.

The next day I went further. After watching several others ascend the NAC's indoor climbing wall, I decided to try it with my eyes closed. Strapped into a halter, I ran my hands along the ridges and began to feel my way up. Grabbing for crevices with my hands and then feet, I worked my way up slowly. Trainers standing below urged me on. A few minutes later, I grappled but could not find anything to grab onto. My hands went numb, one of my legs dangled out. Cold feet. "Take your time," came a voice from below. "You can do it."

Gradually I found something to grasp, enough to pull myself up. And after a couple more minutes, I touched the top.

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