Seven-year-old Emmy Pfankuch rolled her wheelchair into a snow-white world. She passed bustling skiers hurrying inside for warmth. Where cement turned to snow, Emmy locked her wheels. She momentarily stuck her tongue out to catch snowflakes. Among the stacks of skis rested her blue sit-ski.
“All right, Em, you ready?” asked Emmy’s snow sports mentor Melodie Buell, a former Division I alpine ski racer with St. Lawrence University. “Do you want me to wheel you over there or do you want to get in yourself?”
Because Emmy has spina bifida, she has no use of her legs. With a forceful grunt, she lifted her body from her wheelchair and slid into the sit ski’s “bucket.” The bucket is a slightly reclined seat fixed atop a shock absorber and two skis. Buell called out commands ensuring Emmy had upper-body mobility.
It gives her the ability to do something comparable to her peers. And often times it gives her something she can do better than her peers, and that’s hard to come by when you’re a wheelchair user.
“Dive bomb arms, unicorn wings… Good?” Buell asked.
“Yup,” Emmy replied.
“Ready for departure?”
For many adaptive skiers, this is not an individual sport. On that day, Emmy’s team consisted of Buell and volunteer guide Sarah Romish.
Buell gained momentum and pushed Emmy through a maze of skiers to the chairlift. Romish pumped a lever, gradually increasing the height of Emmy’s bucket. This made it easier to lift and load Emmy onto the chairlift.
They headed up into a stormy sky that looked like it had been shaken from a snow globe. Emmy said she’s been learning to sit ski since age four, and that Buell has been coaching her since day one. Emmy told Romish that she’s no novice.
“I’ve been on a black diamond run,” Emmy said.
“Was it scary?” Romish asked.
“The first time,” Emmy replied.
Once she was on the slope, it was clear that Emmy’s not into tame, “snow plow” type skiing. She was ripping, arching calculated bold turns, slaloming tightly around trees.
Buell helped control the sit ski by grasping a bar behind Emmy’s head. Romish followed. In a hunter-orange vest, she was there to caution other skiers. For the next five years or so, Buell will teach Emmy how to lean her body, use her core. The ultimate goal: foster a lifelong love of skiing.
Emmy skis with Oregon Adaptive Sports, or OAS, a local non-profit focused on providing affordable and life changing-experiences for the disabled.
“She wouldn’t be doing it without OAS because neither her dad nor I ski well – at all,” said Emmy’s mom, Jill Pfankuch. “We watch from the bottom of the mountain while Mel can take her up to the top and bring her back down again safely.”
It’s clear what OAS and skiing afford Emmy.
“Independence for her,” Pfankuch said. “We’re big on that in our family, and it gives her the ability to do something comparable to her peers. And often times it gives her something she can do better than her peers, and that’s hard to come by when you’re a wheelchair user.”
Melodie Buell said Emmy is just like other emerging athletes on the ski hill. But Buell knows adaptive skiers often work harder than their able bodied peers.
“The determination to succeed is absolutely essential,” she said. “And I would say especially working with people who have disabilities, you sometimes have to have a much higher level of drive than your peers.”
Emmy aspires to be a Paralympian. Yet for many adaptive athletes, simply getting on the slopes is difficult. But according to Christine Brousseau, the head of Oregon Adaptive Sports, the benefits stay with them.
“There is really strong correlation that shows that those with disability who are physically active are more likely to lead a healthier lifestyle, they are more sociable,” Brousseau said.
Brousseau also said the disabled who engage in physical activity are more employable. Across the country there’s been increased demand for adaptive sports programs. Locally, since 2008, the number of skier days OAS provides has tripled. But skiing doesn’t come cheap. OAS offers scholarship funds to 50 percent of their participants.
“So a lot of these folks – due to medical cost and prescription costs and doctor visits – are financially struggling,” Brousseau said. “And so they don’t have the opportunities to necessarily pay for these lessons. Because the poverty, obesity, disability correlation is so strong.”
Sports may soon help mitigate these disparities for disabled youth. In late January, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights interpreted Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 this way: School districts using federal dollars to support their athletic programs must provide students with disabilities an equal opportunity to participate in extracurricular athletics. School districts wouldn’t be required to admit disabled athletes on all teams, but they should afford disabled students a similar athletic experience. This could be ground breaking for many disabled youth.
The adaptive ski program at Mt. Bachelor began in 1996, shortly after a local school’s annual ski day. A forward-thinking ski patroller observed that the disabled students were left lodge bound. Gabe Rousseau is one of those kids who ultimately benefitted. Now, Rousseau is a 26-year-old graduate student whose expressions are 100 percent thriving ski bum.
“Everyday dealing with muscular dystrophy like I do, gravity is a real adversary of mine. But when I’m skiing it’s a reversal of that relationship,” Rousseau said. “Gravity is all of a sudden my friend, and it’s doing everything for me. I’m just kind of along for the ride.”
One like-minded sit skier exploiting this gift of gravity is 46-year-old Kevin McCormack. He’s a burly transport logistics manager. On that blue-sky day, his sleek mirrored goggles could not mask a wide this-is-exactly-where-I-want-to-be smile. He was skiing with his buddy Brian Jarvis.
“He loves to go fast, and when you’re skiing behind him sometimes its like skiing behind a water-skier cause he throws up these huge wakes,” Jarvis said. “And on a day like today when the sun is shining it’s a beautiful thing to watch.”
McCormack, paralyzed in a freak skiing accident 10 years ago, now rides the mountain on a mono-sit-ski. That day, he tipped downhill. As he accelerated, his shoulders ran inches above the slope. A back-lit snow plume traced his wide arcs. Turn after turn it was like this for nearly 1,000 feet.
“I mean, you know the feeling when you are making a great turn,” McCormack said. “It’s like, ‘Ahhhh, that was a good one.’ It’s just like there it is, just like you would. I mean, I wasn’t going to not work and provide for my family, I wasn’t going to not ski anymore. You know all the things I love to do, I was still going to do, period – just different. We all have things that we need to adapt to, mine is just very obvious.”