Do you want to learn to ski? You can, no matter your disability.
There are hundreds and hundreds of disabled skiers flying down ski hills and mountains across the country. Experienced skiers make it look easy as they swoosh and cut their way through powdery (and sometimes not so powdery) snow. While it takes some practice to refine your technique, you too can be schussing down a hill the same day you begin your adaptive skiing lessons.
The first thing you need to do to learn how to ski is to locate a program in your area. Disabled Sports USA has chapters with adaptive ski programs nationwide. Visit our Locations page and search for a skiing program near you. If there isn’t a chapter in your area, call the nearest ski hill and ask if they have an adaptive program.
Once you’ve located an adaptive program, call and ask questions about any physical concerns you might have, the accessibility of the ski area, and the type of skiing available to you based on your disability. Tell them you have never been on skis before. Don’t be shy. Ski instruction is just that – teaching you how to ski.
When you call to book a lesson, the person taking the information should explain the registration process, tell you if you need to fill out forms in advance, and give you the cost* and length of lesson. If not, then be sure to ask so you will have no surprises once you get to the ski hill.
As with any high level of activity, the night before get your rest and be sure to drink plenty of fluids. Amputees and others with disabilities sometimes have other health conditions. Make sure you don’t vary from what your doctor prescribes in terms of medicine, hydration, and nutrition.
*Many programs have scholarships to assist those in need of financial aid.
YOUR FIRST LESSON
- When arriving for your first lesson, wear layers of non-cotton winter clothes and use sunblock. Bring a water bottle, a snack, and a positive attitude!
- Arrive 30 minutes early so that you can fill out the registration paperwork and sign forms.
- Call the ski school if you are going to be late.
- You will meet your instructors and there will be an assessment during which they will ask you about your mobility level and watch you move, other sports you may do, your strength, flexibility, areas of weakness and endurance in order to match you with the best equipment. You will set goals for your
- lesson that match your desires and what the instructor knows about the area and conditions of the day.
- You will be required to wear a helmet during your lesson.
- Your lesson will start on the flat snow with skills and drills.
- Lessons typically last from 1.5-3 hours.
- Parents or caregivers will be given a time to meet back following the lesson.
- You’re a beginner, so don’t be embarrassed if you don’t get the hang of it right away or need to be shown something again. It’s OK to ask questions.
- Have fun!
METHODS OF SKIING
Depending on your level of disability, there are several ways you can ski using different types of adaptive equipment.
Four-track skiing is an ideal technique for persons with a wide variety of disabilities, including double amputees, spina bifida, cerebral palsy, muscular dystrophy, multiple sclerosis, stroke, head trauma, paraplegia, and polio. An individual with two legs and arms, natural or prosthetic, who is capable of standing independently or with the aid of outriggers, could ski four-track using two skis with two hand-held outriggers for balance/support, giving the skier four points of contact with the snow. Outriggers are metal forearm crutches with ski tips on the ends, some having adjustable brakes to aid with balance if necessary.
In addition to outriggers, ski stabilizers or tip clamps (ski bras) are used for lateral stability if needed. A tip clamp can also allow a student’s strong side to help control the weaker side. The design of tip clamps allows the skis to stay in a wedge or parallel position while skiing.
The snow slider is another form of four-track skiing for those with more severe balance issues. Skis are mounted to the metal frame making it something like a walker with skis. The skier uses their own boots and skis, and is aided by instructors on either side.
Three-track skiing is stand-up skiing using one full-size ski and two handheld outriggers for balance/support, giving the skier three points of contact with the snow. Individuals with above-knee amputations and single limb weakness typically use this method of skiing. It also can be suitable for those with cerebral palsy, muscular dystrophy, multiple sclerosis, post-polio syndrome, arthritis, spina bifida, spinal cord injury, and traumatic brain injury. Three-track skiing requires strong leg and arm strength and may not be for those who have weakness in their remaining limbs.
Two-track skiing is suitable for any skier who stands on two skis and does not require outriggers. The skier can stand and maintain balance while in motion, although adaptive equipment (tethers, spacers, ski bras, etc.) may be used to aid in leg strength. Two track skiing is best suited to students with developmental and cognitive disabilities, mild cerebral palsy, visual impairment, hearing impairment, traumatic brain injury, Fragile X Syndrome, epilepsy, Friedreich’s Ataxia, Autism Spectrum Disorder, Asperger Syndrome, and spina bifida.
There are many below-knee amputees who can ski using the two-track methods thanks to advancements in prosthetics (carbon fiber, durable systems and sockets, improved suspension) that make it possible. However, not every prosthetic knee can withstand the forces of alpine skiing, so a skier should consult with their prosthetist first to determine the best type of components for their intended activity.
Mono-ski and bi-ski: Anyone who cannot ski standing can use a technique called sit-skiing, using a mono-ski or a bi-ski.
Mono-skiing utilizes a bucket style seat with a single ski underneath it. An individual uses handheld outriggers for balance, requiring strong arms and good core strength and trunk balance. Individuals who have lower limb impairments and reasonable trunk stability and balance use mono-skis. Those with brain trauma, post-polio syndrome, muscular dystrophy, cerebral palsy, multiple sclerosis, spina bifida, spinal cord injuries and double amputees are good candidates for mono-skiing.
Bi-skiing utilizes a bucket style seat with two skis underneath it. The bi-ski is designed for those who use a wheelchair or have difficulty walking even when assisted by crutches, canes or walkers. The typical candidate for the bi-ski would be an individual with a mid- to high-level spinal cord injury, cerebral palsy, multiple sclerosis, spina bifida, muscular dystrophy, amputees, or other severe balance impairments.
A bi-ski can be skied independently like a mono-ski using the same type of handheld outriggers or can be skied with the assistance of an instructor using fixed outriggers and tethers (reins attached to the back of the bi-ski). Skiers turn by either moving their head and shoulders or by using handheld outriggers. A bi-ski can be a choice for a new sit-down skier before moving on to the mono-ski, depending on the shared goals of the skier and instructor.
Visual Impairment (VI) is not a barrier to fun on the slopes. Skiers learn to ski with the assistance of a specifically trained guide. For first-time VI skiers, the guide skis first, but facing backwards to the student; students with peripheral vision can be guided from the side. A guide can also call out instructions from behind the skier. The key is for the student and guide to determine the best method of communication before the lessons begin.
READY FOR THE COMPETITION
Diana Golden Youth Race Series Racing – First Step to Paralympics
All ski racers have to start somewhere and the Diana Golden Youth Race Series is the entry level of racing for disabled skiers. The Diana Golden Series Level 1 was named after the seven-time world champion in downhill. Golden was an advocate for the disabled and encouraged participation in competitive sports. She was always an advocate for young racers as they were climbing the ladder. DSUSA chapters in the northeast conduct from six to 10 races between January and March each year. Many participants compete in as many races as possible – the top male and female finishers win a scholarship to attend The Hartford Ski Spectacular National Race Festival.
For more information and a schedule go to our Ski and Snowboard Racing page. This year in the northeast, racers who are looking for more competition will be encouraged to attend a couple of designated USSA (United States Ski and Snowboard Association) races in New Hampshire that will have a “disabled division” for a group of disabled racers. Racers must have a USSA license for these races.
Track Your Progress
Skiers interested in how their times have improved as they become more skilled, can utilize NASTAR (National Standard Race), available at almost every major ski area. Through computer tracking, NASTAR allows ski or snowboard racers of all ages and abilities to check and compare their times. NASTAR courses are simple, open-gated giant slalom on mostly intermediate terrain, allowing skiers of all abilities and ages to experience racing.
Moving Up the Ladder
Ski racers who become proficient and want to further challenge themselves and improve their skills can move on to Level II races (called IPCAS races), which are sanctioned by the United States Ski and Snowboard Association (USSA) and the International Paralympic Committee (IPC). In Level II, skiers are competing against their peers and a point system called IPCAS points, which starts at 990 points. Points carry over from one season to the next inside a 15-month period. As a racer’s skill level increases, that racer’s points will decrease. Lower points reflect better race results. Skiers must also have a competitor’s license from the USSA and the IPC and have a disability classification (see Classification sidebar, page 22). For details on IPC licensing, learn more at Team USA.
The U.S. Adaptive Team is selected every spring based on their IPCAS points from Level II races from each year. If a racer is selected to be on the team, then international competition begins with the ultimate goal to be in the Paralympics.
Ski equipment also is different at the higher levels of racing. At the entry level, skis are the same as in recreational skiing. But as skiers advance, upgrades to racing skis which have certain dimensions, are essential. Check the IPC list of equipment requirements for sanctioned races.
THE COACH SAYS…
Ray Watkins is Alpine Team Head Coach at the National Ability Center and staff member of the Paralympic Alpine Skiing National Team. In 2010, Watkins was named United States Olympic Committee Paralympic Coach of the Year and the United States Ski Association International Adaptive Coach of the Year. He’s taught a countless number of youth to ski properly and enjoy the thrill of racing.
Once You’ve Learned Your Adaptive Technique…
“When an athlete gets started, there has to be a love of skiing, not just the wish to be a Paralympic athlete,” Watkins said. “It’s a challenging road, but if you have that love, that passion, then I suggest you also get involved with your local able-bodied program. Every high school has a ski team and that’s a great way to get started to see if you really love competition and its fun for you. We’ve had a lot of our most successful athletes start with an able-bodied program.”
High school able-bodied teams regularly participate in USSA races. Adaptive athletes are allowed to participate if they meet the event criteria and ask for The Golden Rule, which is a rule that allows a special start order for athletes with a disability. The Golden Rule must be requested by the coach to the race organizer’s prior to the team captain’s meeting. You will need to have a USSA license in order to compete in these high school races. Learn more about seeding and starting positions.
Making the Team
Once you’ve decided that serious competition is what you want to do, then get involved with a full-time program, whether it’s a Paralympic Sport Club or a DSUSA Chapter, or a ski school. “In the western United States there are some great programs including Alpine Meadows, Mammoth, Disabled Sports Eastern Sierra, Kirkwood, National Ability Center (NAC), National Sports Center for the Disabled (NSCD), Aspen Valley Ski Club and Team Summit in Copper Mountain,” Watkins said.
Adaptive competition training is based on the same teaching principals used for any standard competitive ski racing organization. It involves on-snow training, gate training and dryland cross training that includes biking, aerobics, and weightlifting to keep your muscles strong and flexible.
“A normal day of training begins with warm ups, drills and exercises,” Watkins said. “Then on the hill, where the coach has set up a course for you to ski. The coach will often shoot a video of your technique. After lunch, the video is shown, and the coach will critique you. The day ends with light aerobic activity and core work to flush the lactic acid from their system so they are ready to go to work the next day.”
As with any sport, the amount of time commitment will depend on your level of dedication. At a minimum, recreational ski racers spend most weekends in the winter training and competing. As you develop in the sport, you may find yourself taking time off from school or work to attend training camps or traveling to races away from your home ski area. Members of the U.S. team spend at least 100 days a year on snow, including off-season training overseas.
When it comes to off-season training, Watkins said he advises his athletes to keep it simple. “I don’t care what you do, just do it an hour a day – cycling, swimming, rock climbing, water skiing, or whatever activity you enjoy and has you moving. At the National Ability Center, we do mini camps the last 15 days of the season, working on the basics, the fundaments of being a good skier – not a racer, but a good skier. The other part of summer training is spending at least one to two weeks at Mount Hood. That is where we find some of the biggest gains in technique during the off-season.”
If You Love It, Do It: “There is nothing you can’t do if you love it,” Watkins said. “Don’t allow anyone to tell you that you can’t do something. Cardio, weight training, core training, can be taught and learned but the desire is the biggest thing to be an elite racer. You can learn everything else, but remember everybody starts somewhere. Everybody that steps up to the Paralympic podium started the same way.”
RACING WITH THE DSUSA SKITOUR
Alpine SkiingFrom January through April 2014, the DSUSA SkiTour will include more than 72 programs/events for youth, warfighters and training adaptive ski and snowboard instructors hosted by 49 DSUSA chapters and affiliates in 30 states. Events include beginner and elite ski races, race training, learn to ski and instructor training.
The SkiTour program is the only one of its kind that ensures opportunities for youth and adults with disabilities to receive state-of-the-art instruction and adaptive equipment throughout the nation’s leading regional ski destinations – California, Colorado, Idaho, Maine, Massachusetts, Nevada, New Hampshire, New York, Utah, and Vermont.
The SkiTour includes internationally-rated elite “IPCAS” ski races that qualify USA and foreign ski racers for the International Paralympic Games events, like the Winter Paralympics. It is the only national qualifying race series for ski racers attempting to qualify for the U.S. Adaptive Alpine Championships.
For a schedule, visit our Events page.
THE HARTFORD SKI SPECTACULAR
Many Paralympic medalists and athletes got their start at The Hartford Ski Spectacular, where the National Race Festival (NRF) is held. The NRF is a three-tiered program featuring mid-level development for youth and adults interested in beginning to race, and athletes pursuing Paralympic competition. The camp includes training and Level I races. DSUSA offers scholarships to youth to attend the event. Elite coaches from across the country offer their skills to jump start these athletes at the beginning of the ski season.
“I can’t reiterate how important the use of DSUSA as a resource is and participation in the National Race Festival. That is the stepping stone to getting into the sport, whether alpine, Nordic or boarding,” said Ray Watkins, head coach at the National Disability Center and staff member of the Paralympic Alpine National Team.
LICENSING & CLASSIFICATION
The United States Ski and Snowboard Association is the national governing body for skiing and snowboarding, and the parent organization for the U.S. Adaptive Ski Team. You will need a USSA adaptive alpine membership to race in NorAm’s and IPC races taking place in North America. You will also need a USSA license if you compete in any non-disabled USSA races. Visit www.ussa.org for membership details and an application form.
All International Paralympic Committee (IPC)-sanctioned events require competing athletes to have an IPC license to race. NorAm and National races in North America are IPC-sanctioned and all participants require a membership to score IPC points. Once the IPC license fee has been paid, the athlete has signed and returned the Athletes’ Eligibility Code Form and the National Paralympic Committee has registered the athlete through the online licensing system, the competitor will be included in the IPCAS Points List. Visit the TeamUSA website for membership details and an application form.
Thinking about getting competitive in the start gate of a ski or snowboard race? Stop and get classified first! Classification is designed to provide athletes with a framework for fair competition. The process of classification is an assessment by reference to the impact of impairment on the athlete’s ability to compete in any sporting event. The classification process for all sports is governed by the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) and the process is carried out by a team of both medical and sports technical professionals. Classification in Alpine Skiing has 12 physical impairment classes, Classes 1-9 are reserved for stand-up skiers and 10-12 are for your mono-skiing. There are also 3 Visually Impaired Classes for alpine skiing. Snowboard classification is new to the IPC and currently classifies snowboarders as upper extremity involvement or lower extremity involvement. Sochi 2014 will be the first Paralympic games to sanction adaptive snowboarding!
To medal in at least a Level 2 Adaptive Alpine Event you need to be classified! Take the chance now and talk to your coach or snow sports director for the next classification opportunity!
Sport Classes LW 2-9: Standing Skiers
- Skiers with leg impairments:
- Sport Class LW (Locomotor Winter) 1: This sport class is allocated to athletes with an impairment that strongly affects both legs, for example an above knee amputation of both legs or significant muscle weakness in both legs.
- Sport Class LW 2: Skiers have a significant impairment in one leg. Some skiers, for example, have an impaired leg from birth. You will see them ski with one ski only.
- Sport Class LW 3: This sport class is for athletes who have a moderate impairment in both legs. They will ski with two skis and a prosthesis. Some LW 3 skiers have mild coordination problems or muscle weakness in both legs, or a below-knee amputation in both legs.
- Sport Class LW 4: Similar to skiers in Sport Class LW 2, LW 4 skiers have an impairment in one leg only, but with less Activity Limitation. A typical example is a below-knee amputation in one leg. They will use two skis during the race.
- Skiers with arm impairments:
- Sport Class LW 5/7: Athletes in this sport class ski with an impairment in both arms. Some athletes have amputations and others have limited muscle power or coordination problems. They will race down the slopes without ski poles.
- Sport Class LW 6/8: Skiers have an impairment in one arm. Skiers will compete with one ski pole only.
- Skiers with combined arm and leg impairments:
- Sport Class LW 9: Skiers in this Sport Class have an impairment that affects arms and legs. Some skiers in this class have coordination problems, such as spasticity or some loss of control over one side of their body. Depending on their abilities, they will ski with one or two skis and one or two poles.
Sport Classes LW 10-12: Sit-Skiers
All sit-skiers have an impairment affecting their legs. They are allocated different sport classes depending on their sitting balance, which is very important for acceleration and balancing during the races.
- Sport Class LW 10: Skiers in this sport class have no or minimal trunk stability, for example due to spinal cord injuries or spina bifida. They therefore rely mainly on their arms to maneuver the sit-ski.
- Sport Class LW 11: Skiers have good abilities in their upper trunk, but very limited control in their lower trunk and hips, as it would be the case for skiers with lower spinal cord injuries.
- Sport Class LW 12: This sport class includes skiers with normal or only slightly decreased trunk function and leg impairments. Skiers with leg impairments in Sport Classes LW 1-4 often also fit this sport class, so that they can choose if they want to ski sitting or standing in the beginning of their career.
Sport Classes B1-3: Skiers with visual impairment
- Sport Class B1: Skiers in this sport class are either blind or have very low visual acuity. By way of explanation, their level of visual acuity is such that the athlete cannot recognize the letter “E” (15x15cm in size) from a distance of 25cm. During the race they are required to wear eyeshades.
- Sport Class B2: This sport class profile includes athletes with a higher visual acuity than athletes competing in the B1 class, but they are unable to recognize the letter “E” from a distance of 4m. Moreover, athletes with a visual field of less than 10 degrees diameter are eligible for this sport class.
- Sport Class B3: The B3 sport class profile describes the least severe visual impairment eligible for Alpine Skiing. Eligible athletes either have a restricted visual field of less than 40 degrees diameter or a low visual acuity.
In IPC Alpine Skiing, you will see athletes with visual impairment skiing with a guide. The guide skis in front of the athlete and verbally gives directions to the athlete.
NATIONAL SKI AREAS ASSOCIATION (NSAA) SAFETY TIPS
Common Sense, it’s one of the most important things to keep in mind and practice when on the slopes. The National Ski Areas Association (NSAA) believes education, helmet use, respect and common sense are very important when cruising down the mountain. NSAA developed Your Responsibility Code to help skiers and boarders be aware that there are elements of risk in snow sports that common sense and personal awareness can help reduce.
Seven Points to Your Responsibility Code
- Always stay in control, and be able to stop or avoid other people or objects.
- People ahead of you have the right of way. It is your responsibility to avoid them.
- You must not stop where you obstruct a trail, or are not visible from above.
- Whenever starting downhill or merging into a trail, look uphill and yield to others.
- Always use devices to help prevent runaway equipment.
- Observe all posted signs and warnings. Keep off closed trails and out of closed areas.
- Prior to using any lift, you must have the knowledge and ability to load, ride and unload safely.
For more information find “Safety Tips” at the NSAA.