National Sports Center for Disabled celebrates 40 years
Winter Park correspondent
Glenwood Springs, CO Colorado
In January 1970, Gerald Groswold, then chairman of the board of Winter Park Ski Area, received a call from the Children’s Hospital of Denver about program they’d been running at Arapahoe Basin for amputee children. A-Basin wasn’t going to continue the program, and the hospital wanted to bring it to Winter Park.
In his morning meeting a few days later, George Engel, who ran Winter Park Ski School at the time, announced that this group was coming up in a week’s time and asked for volunteers. Of the 40 or so ski instructors standing there that day, only one raised his hand to volunteer.
Later, at lunch, Engel walked by the lone volunteer and threw a note in front of him.
“Call this number. You’re in charge,” Engel said.
The 32-year-old Montreal-born ski instructor stared at the note while he finished eating his lunch. He had no way of knowing that by raising his hand he had just shifted the entire course his life as well as the lives of tens of thousands of others.
That ski patroller was Hal O’Leary.
O’Leary went on to found the National Sports Center for the Disabled. Today, the NSCD is one of the largest outdoor therapeutic recreation agencies in the world. Each year, thousands of children and adults with disabilities take to the ski slopes, mountain trails and golf courses to learn more about sports, and themselves.
From the get-go, O’Leary had obstacles to overcome, starting with the fact that he’d never even known an amputee, not to mention seeing one ski.
The day after he raised his hand, O’Leary got himself a set of outriggers and went about teaching himself to ski on one leg. Being schooled in the Professional Ski Instructions of America technique, he used all the same concepts as he would use for a conventional skier, sliding between turns.
On Jan. 22, 1970, 23 amputee children arrived at Winter Park with equipment borrowed from Children’s Hospital. It was a cold day, as O’Leary recalls, and he pushed the kids hard, making them climb up the bunny slope to turn around and practice making runs back down.
Some of the kids who had participated in the program at A-Basin had been taught to jump turn the ski rather than sliding it. So they were hopping around like kangaroos, hopping three times to make each turn, O’Leary said.
By 11 a.m., kids were collapsed on slope, crying. One screamed: “I hate your guts,” O’Leary recalled.
Feeling that he had failed them, he took them over to the lift on Practice Slope after lunch and put them on the chairlift. A few bailed out, and O’Leary thought: ‘Oh my God, I’m going to kill them,’ he said: “I worried they’d end up in the tunnel.”
By the end of the day, however, the kids were flying down the hill, coats flapping in the wind and smiles on their faces.
O’Leary was hooked.
For eight weeks the program continued. Before long, the television stations caught wind of what was going on at Winter Park. One day O’Leary got a call from the Today Show, which wanted to feature his program. No sooner had he hung up the phone then it rang again, and Good Morning America was on the line wanting an interview
“It really put Winter Park on the map in those days,” he said.
As word got out, people with different disabilities started calling O’Leary to set up lessons, from the visually impaired to the paraplegic.
For each new challenge a skier presented, O’Leary needed a new adaptation to the traditional ski equipment. He spent nights at the ski shop working on modifications and pouring over medical books.
One early invention was the “ski bra.” Originally made of metal, the contraption slid over the tip of the skis, holding them in place and preventing them from crossing.
“The ski still had freedom, but it helped people [who] lack lateral control of their bodies,” he said.
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