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Feature - A wild ride

Taking some turns with Whistler’s Adaptive Ski (and Snowboard) Program

They’re weasel words: "I can’t." They insinuate their way into your mind when you’re up against the edges of your comfort zone. Up against your limits, and there’s that sniveling little voice, "I can’t." There are some images I conjure when the weasel-claws get their grip on me. Like an incantation, I bring forth with a wave of my hand that heinous canoe portage when our photocopied map didn’t distinguish green circle trails from black diamond trails. The big wall, when I slept on a ledge smaller than my coffee table 1,400 feet from the valley floor. The last lap of my first triathlon when I had nothing left to give, I’d thought I’d finished, and the evil volunteer was waving me on, one more lap, one more lap, and my feet like concrete boots, you’re joking? The common theme – it seemed impossible. But I did it. Therein lies the magic.

Life for 17-year-old Aaron offers up the usual hurdles – finding a date for grad, sending off college applications, directing the school play, working out at the gym so he can excel at his sports, fitting in snowboarding on the weekends. In his dreams, he moves to Ottawa for university and gets to class on time, has his picture in Transworld Magazine, and improves his snowboarding so he can ride the pipe.

Aaron Broverman is a motivated kid. "One of the reasons I want to go to Ontario for university is that Ontario is the media epicentre of Canada. And hopefully that would open doors to go to New York City. I want to go to New York and write for Rolling Stone."

I ask him for his theory on excellence: "I think you just have to be driven. You can’t be lazy. You can’t have fear. Fear is what holds you back. I don’t want to give in to negative attitude. Then you’re not willing to try anything."

I make a mental note to add Aaron’s pep talk to my weasel-busting spell. Because for Broverman, this isn’t some idle motivational speech. He has cerebral palsy.

"If I didn’t have cerebral palsy, then the world would be my oyster. I wouldn’t have anything holding me back. I love theatre and I’d love to act, but I’ve realized I’m better in a director’s role. I have the vision in my head of what I want to do as an actor, but because of my disability, it’s harder for me to execute it. I’m limited on stage because I have to have my cane. It’s a drawback, so you have to be realistic. If I didn’t have cerebral palsy, I wouldn’t have to be motivated, I could keep putting everything off. Having cerebral palsy has definitely made me more motivated. I have to be."

Aaron’s in Whistler with the Adaptive Skiing Program. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s go back to where this story started.

We’re in a trailer, narrow and dim. The walls are lined with hooks and shelves, skis, ski contraptions. Outside, there’s 10cm of fresh snow – the first in months, and the mountain is humming, people hustling for fresh tracks, for face shots. Inside the trailer, Shawn is waiting in the dark, in his wheelchair, for his brother to return from the Peak chair, where he’s gone to get in a few fresh lines. Shawn used to be a junkie for the powder, too. Before his accident. Now, in his sit-ski, it’s better on the groomed runs, where he can get purchase with his outriggers. He’s been learning to ski again.

Eventually, Shawn’s brother throws wide the door – he’s snow-cloaked, wide-grinned: "Are you ready, man?"

"Hang on a second. This is interesting."

There’s a handful of others in the trailer too, gathered in the soft white morning. The others are able-bodied, nothing holding them back from those big turns on the Peak, except a curiosity about a fast-talking skater-dude from Southern California, Jonny Boy and his invention.

How many of the world’s great innovations would be lost to us if it weren’t for napkins and coasters in the pub? The moment of inspiration strikes, in between gulps, and you’re reaching for something, anything, to make a record. "A pen? Anyone got a pen?" A few quick strokes across the napkin and the essence of it is caught. There. Rescued from the fate of hungover oblivion.

Jonny Boy’s wife is his childhood sweetheart. She develops a disease called optical neuritis, which effectively means she’s going blind, and he’s trying to work out how to get her snowboarding. This skater/surfer/former skier borrows from all the sports he knows to create the Board Buddy – a simple waist harness like a hoop skirt from Gone With the Wind, that will allow him to ski with his wife and guide her movements, without getting tangled up in well-intentioned hand-holding. The bar resembles a windsurfing boom, 10 pounds of steel, creating the two arcs of the skirt. The snowboarder stands in the centre, wrapped in a harness borrowed from a backpack’s waistband, with extra strength Velcro to cinch it tight and a scuba buckle for easy release. The harness is connected on four sides like a web to the boom… the straps adjustable like a bra. When it’s all cinched in tight, a snowboarder can stand alone, barely noticing the weight, while their companion can turn them at the waist, side to side, simply pulling at different points on the bar. The boom can also be used to help lever a student back on their feet.

He’s an evangelist, of sorts, this Jonny Boy. They guinea-pigged it themselves, he and his wife, testing the prototype and developing it over three years. His wife learned to snowboard in it – once she could stop and turn on her own, she didn’t need it anymore. But there were plenty who did. And he began to travel the world to share the good news.

"Seeing is believing," he says. "Let’s get out there and try it. Anyone want to wear a blindfold?"

Adaptive skiing has been around since the ’40s, when war veterans used skiing for rehab and recreation. It took until 1983 for the International Olympic Committee to sanction the Third World Winter Games for the Disabled. Coach of the B.C. Disability Sports team, and former Olympic demonstrator, Phil Chew, reminisces about taking one of Dave Murray’s first downhill camps in Whistler.

"Dave inspired me to keep going in skiing. He made it feel fun for me. I made the 1984 Disabled Ski team to go to Austria, and came sixth in the giant-slalom. From that, they took the top 10 male skiers in the world to give a demonstration in Sarajevo for the Olympic Committee. I was privileged to be chosen. They were trying to figure out how the disabled were going to fit into the overall alpine ski plan."

It seems natural that Chew moved into coaching when he retired as an athlete – he knows the mentality it takes to be a winner.

"I tell them, what do you mean, ‘ you can’t’ ? Look at me. I did it. You’re not just trying to do well. You’re trying to win."

And Phil Chew stood on the podium at several World Championships, representing Canada frequently on the disabled demonstration team. It wasn’t until 1992, at Albertville that the disabled and able-bodied Olympics were combined, and the Paralympians were finally accepted into the fold as competitors in their own right.

Phil Chew spoke to the Whistler community at the museum’s recent Olympic memories evening: "Disabled skiing is going in the right direction with the Adaptive Ski Program here. Every component of the 2010 Paralympics will be held in Whistler. It will put Paralympics in this country on the map."

It makes the Paralympics almost as new as Olympic snowboarding. Kind of the rebel children of the WASPish ski establishment parents. Less than 30 years into its existence, snowboarding is injecting fresh energy into the Olympics, with the recent announcement that the SnowboardCross will be an event at Turin in 2006. In an unusually inclusive move, snowboarding is already looking to accommodate the differently abled, the physically challenged. CASI, the snowboard instructors association is looking to bring teaching of disabled snowboarders under its wing, including certification. B.C. Snowboarding Association is also hoping to incorporate adaptive snowboarding into their competitive events. Whistler’s Adaptive Ski Program is reeling at the demand for snowboarding lessons. The program is on the cusp of exploding into a year-round centre for adaptive recreation. And whether you’ve reached Olympic saturation point or not, there’s no arguing that this bid has put the spotlight on adaptive skiing, bringing a traditionally marginalized group straight to the table for the planning and development of the Olympic bid, of one vision of Whistler’s future. That it might be a more inclusive place to all types of bodies is one of the best legacies we could imagine.

Sian Blythe, the director at the Whistler Adaptive Ski Program, has stopped by to check out Jonny Boy’s Better Boarding contraption in action, then she’s up the mountain to meet up with Shawn for a few turns. A former neurology rehabilitation nurse, Sian’s epiphany came when she volunteered with a British outdoor recreation group for people with disabilities. Suddenly, all her training and skills had a meaningful application.

"I saw Shawn as an angry young man, just after his accident, when he wanted the world to f*** off. And now, we’re going to ski together this afternoon," she’s sparkly-eyed and speaking quickly. "Snow sports are a key aspect to the recovery process for people with acquired injuries. And for people with congenital injuries, it enables integration, it gives them a chance to do what everyone else is doing. It’s a hugely positive thing. You see it every time, when it all falls into place, and they look back up a slope they’ve just completed, ‘I just skied that hill. So, NOW what can I do?’"

Aaron Broverman didn’t take up snowboarding because he was drawn to the culture of cool. Initially, it was an aspect of his physical therapy suggested to develop strength in his legs. The fact that it is fun was a bonus. The day after Jonny Boy’s demonstration, Aaron is out testing the Board Buddy with volunteers Jeff and Inge. Normally, Aaron rides with the assistance of a spider, a device that has three "legs" to provide additional stability, and enable Aaron to ride with a minimum of assistance. Today, he’s testing out the board buddy with the attitude of an industrial designer, analyzing, engaging, offering valuable feedback. He rides laps of the Olympic chair, a volunteer on each side of the boom, and it’s a wild and elegant waltz they do, heel side, neutral, toe side, carving down that slope, in a show of synchronicity. Tyler is out for a few turns too, offering some moral support, with a fold-up chair under an arm, so Aaron can recharge his strength in between runs. Tyler’s back on his board after a snowboarding-related back injury left him with some paralysis in his glutes and his calves.

This is the thing that strikes me the most – this could be any of us. Who knows what card the deck might next turn up? Able-bodied and oblivious mountain lovers, shuffling through life, and flip! There’s the Joker. An unexpected injury sustained mountain-biking, skiing, driving to work… And how relieved might we be that people have been working behind the scenes, in basement offices, on shoestring budgets, at the Rehab Foundation, with Adaptive Snowsports, so we can get back out there and rediscover our bodies, the crisp lick of mountain air at our faces, the satisfaction of doing something we thought was impossible. Hold down that squirming little weasel and shut the voice up for good. Yeah. Now, what can I do?


Inspired to get involved?

Build up your karma points: you never know when you might need them.

Sign up for the B.C. Rehab Centre’s Dual Mountain Rally. Put together a team of four, collect a pledge of $250 for each participant and rally through 24 checkpoints on both mountains Saturday, April 5. You will get free lift passes, breakfast, lunch and dinner at the Westin Resort and Spa, and be eligible for all kinds of prizes. Call 604-737-6383 for a pledge sheet, or look out for the Aloha! brochure at Whistler-Blackcomb Guest Services. Proceeds from this year’s Dual Mountain Rally will go to the Whistler Adaptive Ski Program.

Volunteer with the Whistler Adaptive Ski Program. Call Sarah or Kara at WASP and find out when the next accreditation courses are being offered (604-905-2071), or email them at : .