The joys and wonders of teaching adaptive skiing

When I’m not binge-watching “Have Gun, Will Travel” in the winter months (a man’s gotta get through the dark times as best he can), I have spent a fair amount of time in the last few years teaching adaptive skiing.

Adaptive skiing has existed for many years but has enjoyed a tremendous increase in participation recently as word has gotten around about its many benefits.

It’s a program of sports education, loosely separated into three camps of students: those with developmental disabilities (autism, Down syndrome, etc.), those with physical disabilities (usually wounded veterans), and those with visual impairment (read: blind).

Trying to discuss any of these client camps without actually holding an advanced degree in a related field is a little like trying to discuss baseball stats without having at the very least ever traded baseball cards. I mean, this stuff is COMPLICATED, and anybody who thinks they are qualified to lecture on it better have a degree from the Sorbonne.

There are no shortages of adventures in teaching skiing, especially adaptive skiing: There’s the admonition about watching for your clients’ tendency to lick the safety bar on the chairlift—which at sub-freezing temps is a REALLY bad move. And remember, these are children, disabled or not. At the beginning of the day, they’re kids, just like we were. So while you’re guarding against that, keep an eye out for the one who wants to just ooze out under the safety bar; I mean, who doesn’t want to fly?  

This has happened once to me, with a student who was not disabled—he was just a six-year-old kid testing the limits of gravity and his teacher’s stupidity. He landed just fine, by the way, as did I, when I flipped up the bar, screamed, “Stop the chairlift!”, took a deep breath and flew off the lift 20 feet beyond him and 10 feet higher. Is this enough drama for you? Because it was for me. By some small miracle, I landed just fine, thank you very much, and after a brief lecture on safety, we got back on the pony and rode it to the top. The moral of the story: We are all developmentally disabled, teachers included.

Teaching wounded veterans is as uplifting as it sounds. Whether they are in chair-skis with outriggers, on a mono-ski or upright on two skis, the special events held each winter to honor those who have fallen but insist on getting back up are always a big draw—for those of us who teach as well. 

Blind skiers come in two types: those who skied before they lost their sight and those who have never skied. If you think it sounds tricky, you’re right. It’s a matter of constant communication and requires a degree of trust normally found only in places like war zones and cathedrals. The teacher skis closely behind the student, either rapidly describing the immediate next move (Right, NOW!) or describing the terrain in a zone format, one for the left edge and ten for the right edge.  In my first experience l managed to find the only deep sinkhole on the mountain and expertly guided my client straight into it. He forgave me, but I’m still working on forgiving myself.

That’s the nub of it as far as teaching adaptive sports goes. In after-hours’ discussions with my fellow teachers, we all seem to share the feeling that we are never going to get this just right, but it would be far worse to never try doing just that. This is the ultimate Calvinistic approach to skiing, like saying we don’t deserve getting to the bottom of the mountain, but which way is the top anyhow?

I’ve noticed something I want to share in my dealings with children with autism. (By the way, we never call them “autistic kids”— they are all “kids with autism” because, after all, they are kids first, and it’s healthy to remember that.) We often find a sibling of our student tagging along, like that adorable younger sister who just won’t stop bugging you when you’re getting ready for the prom.

My point is that when you get a child to the bottom of a slope after a couple of hours teaching rudimentary turns, and the parents are standing there with tears streaming down their cheeks, you realize that, while your lesson may be over, theirs NEVER is, that the love of a parent for their child, or a sister for her brother, is the glue that holds our lives together, that being able to be part of this is what draws us to this incredibly difficult, strenuous and stressful profession. 

Actually, we don’t get paid, so I’m not sure what to call us…Wait a minute, I’ve got it: “lucky.”

Mason Daring is a writer, film composer, record producer and teacher at the Berklee School of Music.