More MS news articles for February 2000

Freedom of the Slopes

Tuesday, February 29, 2000

By Matt Siegel
Journal Staff Writer

SANTA FE -- It's not just a second chance at skiing. That's not how Bob Gardenhire looks at it anyway.

The adaptive ski program at the Santa Fe Ski Area has offered him a second chance at reclaiming a missing piece of his life.

"This is the greatest program," Gardenhire said. "It's the best thing I've ever done. It's given me my freedom back."

An avid skier throughout his childhood and early adulthood, Gardenhire's story is not unlike a lot of the adaptive ski program participants.

Gardenhire, 53, said while he was a young adult he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, but the disease didn't start taking its toll until 1992. When it did, the effects hit him hard. He couldn't ski anymore, and so Gardenhire made a conscious decision to avoid the sport entirely.

For about six years, he wouldn't even come near the ski area. The memory of what was taken away from him was too painful.

"It was quite a blow," Gardenhire said. "I did all these outdoor things like back packing, fly fishing and water skiing. You name it, I did it. What happens when you get a disease like this is you lose your desire."

But then a childhood friend, Rick Bressan, heard about the adaptive ski program through a mutual friend and suggested to Gardenhire that he try it.

The not-for-profit volunteer program at the Santa Fe Ski Area aims to teach the sport of downhill skiing to children and adults with physical or developmental disabilities.

It took some good-natured arm twisting before Gardenhire agreed.

"I thought he was crazier than hell," Gardenhire said. "I didn't think there was any way I could ski like I did before."

He couldn't -- at least not at the beginning. But he took to the program and has steadily improved.

His disease hasn't.

He said that his multiple sclerosis has progressed to such a point that he wasn't sure he would be able to continue in the program this year.

But Bressan and Christi Hield, the adaptive ski program director, convinced him he belonged in the program. Now, Gardenhire says, he is skiing on slopes that he thought were long ago beyond his capabilities.

"When he first started in the program, he was falling all the time," Bressan, a volunteer instructor, said. "But now he's skiing better than he ever has before."

He's able to do that because the adaptive ski program, which started in mid-January and goes for six weeks, puts people with disabilities into special-fitting equipment and teaches them techniques to be able to downhill ski.

Gardenhire is grateful for the program, but said the people who can really take advantage of it are young people.

"I've led a full life and done a lot of things," Gardenhire said. "Who this program really can help is kids with disabilities. They need to know something like this is out there for them."

Darlene Blagg can attest to that: her three children are involved in the program at the Santa Fe Ski Area.

She's witnessed the positive impact the program has had on her children, especially her oldest child, Becky, who is 9. Darlene Bragg said that Becky is developmentally delayed, which means that she is not physically on target with her peers.

"The self confidence this program has given her has been incredible," Darlene Blagg said. "It's made such a difference in her personality, too."

The benefits are sometimes more subtle and less tangible. Blagg said seeing adults with disabilities doing things for themselves and knowing that they can also do things independent of someone else when they are older is a valuable teaching tool for her children.

Speaking of teaching, her husband, Doug Blagg, is an adaptive ski instructor at the Santa Fe Ski area.

The foundation of the adaptive ski program is its volunteer instructors, like Doug Blagg, who undergo extensive training in which they practice skiing with all of the special equipment so that they can demonstrate the proper techniques and pass on that knowledge to the program's participants.

"It really starts out with a trust that is formed," Doug Blagg said.

"You're completely strapped into the equipment and it's a very scary and helpless feeling. As an instructor, you're trying to help a person through that process.

"But then it develops into something much more than that. You develop such a tremendous bond with the people and form lasting friendships."

Xavier Horan, a junior at St. Michael's who was injured in an automobile accident last April, is just starting out in the program. He's a recent addition to the adaptive ski program.

Horan, 17, said there's a chance he will walk again in the future, but doctors aren't sure. In the interim, he doesn't want to miss out on a favorite pastime.

"My godfather got me involved in this program," Horan said. "I used to go skiing up in Aspen (Colo). I wanted to be able to do it again, and this program has provided me with that opportunity."

The adaptive ski program offered at the Santa Fe Ski area and Sandia (although Sandia did not have the program this year because of lack of snow) was started in the mid-1980s.

The program concludes this Saturday and Sunday at the Santa Fe Ski area, but Hield said private lessons are available until April 9. Hield said programs similar to the one at the Santa Fe Ski area can be found at other ski areas throughout the state.

Hield said approximately 120 people participated in the program this year at the Santa Fe Ski area. She said that when both ski areas are open, the program usually draws around 170 participants.

There is a fee for the adaptive ski program, but Hield said that shouldn't be a deterrent.

"It's a nominal fee and we work with people to accommodate them," Hield said. "It's a sliding scale. What this program is all about is giving people a chance to blend into a group. We want people to know that everyone has a place with us."

That's what the program has given Kathy Lithgow, a Santa Fe resident. Like Gardenhire, Lithgow, 37, has multiple sclerosis.

A doctor turned her on to the adaptive ski program, and it has made a world of difference in her life. She said that the program has been a liberating experience.

 "There was a time when I was bitter, but I got over it," Lithgow said.

"When I skied as a kid, I used to think of it as my mountain. You know what?

They're my mountains again."

Among the physical or developmental disabilities the adaptive ski program at Santa Fe Ski Area deals with are spinal cord injuries, muscular dystrophy, head injuries, multiple sclerosis, vision or hearing disabilities, cerebral palsy, spina bifida, amputation, critical illness and others.