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Adaptive sports program going strong at Bretton Woods

January 14, 2011
BRETTON WOODS- For the volunteers at the Bretton Woods Adaptive, the program is more than a hobby; it is a calling. The adaptive sports program's cluttered office is full of winter sports gear, but it is really the volunteers' enthusiastic spirit that fills the room – each and everyone of them happy to be part of a program that allows physically and developmentally disabled people the equipment and instruction to ski down a mountain.

"Some organizations don't teach, they just do rides, and that's fine if that's their mission, but that's not what we do," said Peter Connell, one of the most enthusiastic volunteers of the group.

"The mission of the program is to teach anyone how to ski," said Connell. "We hope it leads to a more independent life – not just for individuals, but for families."

Connell has been volunteering for the adaptive program since its inception in 2000. He learned how to ski through an adaptive sports program himself. After making it through Vietnam relatively unscathed, Connell lost his leg in a jeep rollover at Fort Knox. When he learned how to ski after the accident, the adaptive instructor who taught him told him the lessons cost nothing save for the promise that Connell teach someone else. Thirty years later, Connell continues to honor that promise.

Bretton Woods' adaptive sports program operates year round, offering everything from golf to kayaking to hiking – everything the resort offers – but the program's inspiration and most popular offering remains its skiing instruction.

"Almost every student is going to be different," said Connell.

Last year, the program taught 500 lessons for diverse students, ranging from the autistic to a woman with brittle bone syndrome to veterans with various war injuries.

"The word adaptive says it all," said Volunteer Carl Schafer. "There is all kinds of equipment that we use to adapt to the situation."

Equipment ranges from traditional skis, boots, and poles, to sit ski equipment, outriggers (forearm crutches with skis mounted on the bottom), and sliders (walkers mounted with skis), to name a few. Students – both local and tourists – call in and give medical information and the program goes from there, adapting a program to fit each student's unique situation.

The program also serves 21 local students, part of schools' winter sports programs that come to the mountain once a week.

"They come up with their school groups, and they're not segregated," said Volunteer Miriam Russell.

Last Friday, Bethlehem Elementary School visited Bretton Woods for its weekly program. One of its students has cerebral palsy, which includes paralysis. The student skis on a sit ski bucket mounted on two skis with articulated mechanisms that allows the instructors to steer it, explained Schafer.

"We take her on the mountain. She absolutely loves it. You can tell by the smile on her face," said Schafer.

Schafer said one of the best parts of the lesson is seeing the student's fellow classmates welcome her to the mountain.

Schafer said volunteering for the adaptive program is incredibly gratifying – you can go home at the end of the day physically exhausted, but smiling nonetheless. Schafer was a late comer to the sport, learning how to ski after his retirement when he moved to the area.

"By starting to ski later in life, it became a passion," said Schafer. "Then, to get involved in a program like this is doubly rewarding."

Schafer was encouraged into the program by his neighbor, Phil Krill, who also learned to ski after retirement. Krill was one of the pioneering forces of the adaptive program at Bretton Woods. Krill's son, an avid sportsman, was left paralyzed from the waist down following a snowmobile accident 15 years ago.

"I didn't know anything about disabilities until my son was injured," said Krill. Now, Krill's son is the director of the adaptive sports program at Loon Mountain. He was the one to encourage Krill and his wife to get involved when they moved to the area ten years ago.

"Every mountain needs a program," said Krill.

Adaptive skiing is not a recent development in the industry, explain Connell, who said this is a common misconception for those new to the sport.

"It's been around for at least 50 years," said Connell, pointing to a newspaper article on the wall that chronicles some the first strides taken in adaptive skiing in Europe.

Adaptive skiing began with injured veterans from World War II who yearned to ski again despite their injuries. In 1942, the first adaptive skiing contraption was designed by German Franz Wendel, a disabled war veteran himself. Wendel attached a pair of crutches to short skis allowing him to ski down the mountain. Ten years later, adaptive skiing came to America when Korean War Veteran Bob Engelien opened the American Amputee Ski School in California based on the ski lessons he had received in Germany after losing his leg in the war.

But it was the 10th Mountain Division, prominent during World War II, which truly pioneered adaptive skiing in America, specifically Instructor Jim Winthurs. Winthurs started an adaptive skiing program at Donner Summit in California, dedicating his life to adapting ski techniques and equipment for disabled skiers.

"If it weren't for [the 10th Mountain Division], the ski industry wouldn't be what it is today," said Connell.

The Bretton Woods Adaptive Sports program maintains that connection between adaptive skiing and veterans. Next month, they will be holding their annual Veterans Appreciation weekend where veterans can ski for free.

"We're seeing a lot more amputees, traumatic brain injuries, results of war," said Schafer.

Lennie Fillius manages the veterans fund created this year to allow veterans the opportunity to utilize the program's services free of charge. The program also has a fund for local families who cannot afford the cost.

"As you know, non-profits across the board are taking a hit in this difficult economy. This makes the Veteran's Fund even more of a necessity here in North Country," said Fillius.

The adaptive program is hosting two veterans' events this winter: Veteran's Appreciation Days on Feb. 5 and 6, and the National Wounded Warrior Project, on March 24.

Kennion Tuthill is a Navy veteran, but was injured in the line of duty as a New York police sergeant. Tuthill, who now lives in Dalton, has been skiing with Bretton Woods Adaptive since March 2008, he said last week after a two-hour lesson. Tuthill, blind save for some opacity in his right eye, skis down the mountain with very little help from the adaptive volunteers – only a blocker who makes sure other skiers and snowboarders are aware of his presence, and someone to call commands of "left," "right," or in an emergency, "down" to Tuthill.

"I love it. I absolutely love it," said Tuthill who said he comes as often as he can get a guide.

"It's a wonderful program. It gets you outside. I've made a lot of new friends. It's all good," he added.

Tuthill, who wrote a thank you haiku now famous in the adaptive office, cannot say enough about the volunteers who give their time for the program.

"What can you say?," asked Tuthill. "These people are so kind and generous with their time. It's added so much to my life."

Martin Lord Osman
Salmon Press
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