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Ski Resort Life

Mind Over Matter: Raising a Special Needs Skier

We bickered over what our kid would put on his feet. Until we realized that he wouldn’t be standing on them.

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We had what we thought was a typical marital spat for skiers expecting a baby. I knew that any human born to a long line of racers from the Rockies would be an alpine skier. My husband, Jim, a diehard telemarker with a backcountry habit, voted for pins. We agreed to disagree, but we always assumed we’d sprinkle a thorough ski education over whatever offspring entered our Seattle life. As my belly grew, so did our trash talk. (“At least he won’t be an Eastern skier,” I taunted.) But never once did we imagine we’d have a kid who wouldn’t be capable of skiing.

In 2009, our son Graham was born with what was eventually diagnosed as mild cerebral palsy, a neurological condition where the brain and the body don’t speak quite the same language. For Graham, this means reduced gross motor control of his legs, which now translates to using a walker to get around. Of course we always wanted to know when he’d walk, but that question once competed with another, almost more personal one: Will we ever ski together? And it wasn’t just skiing; when we realized the scope of his disability, hiking and traveling and playing outside were suddenly available to us as a family only with an asterisk next to them. *This child requires additional equipment. Please see instructions.

Only there were no instructions. At first it felt like we had to breathe differently. As time passed, we got good at incorporating and overcoming limitations, but we still didn’t see a clear path to a family life on snow. Initially, we thought  it would make sense to give Graham the feel for skiing by holding him between our legs. Graham squealed as Jim dutifully dragged him up and down the slope at Alpental, our local ski hill, bearing his full weight with strong daddy arms. As skier parents, we had achieved. We had our child on snow (or at least hovering above it) by age two. Graham harbored zero fear, but it soon became clear that playing Magic Carpet sherpa would be a great way to ensure back surgery for Jim before 40. We knew there were adaptive-skiing options but—due to inexperience rather than pigheadedness—we just didn’t see how any other type of riding would fit into our world on snow. We wholeheartedly embraced having a handicapped child in every way but one.

In the spring of 2013, we enrolled an almost four-year-old spitfire in lessons at Whistler Adaptive, thinking they’d help us find another way to teach Graham to magically bear weight on skis. (He still couldn’t walk.) An experienced instructor cajoled us into getting Graham into a sit ski. Suddenly, as if a switch had been flipped, we could all ski together, almost anywhere. Graham wanted to go faster and higher every time. My own parents and siblings came out for a day, and we did human slalom, that geekiest of games where the only grandchild gets to swoop around his loving audience at full speed while they pretend to be terrified. Graham would agree to stop for lunch only when Jim explained that the entire mountain—except the waffle maker at Crystal Hut—shut down at mealtimes.


The next fall, we plotted real ski trips, but with some hesitation. Graham wasn’t really learning to ski. He was learning to ride fast in a bucket with skis attached to the bottom. Still, it was something. We joined a local adaptive-ski program and planned to show Graham the places we had loved to ski as kids—Bromley Mountain, Sun Valley, and Jackson Hole—but weren’t certain how defining our days by adaptive-ski lessons (and sharing them with random instructors) would fit our definition of the sport. And since we knew so little about sit-skiing, how could we be sure to spot and trust a good coach?

At Sun Valley’s Dollar Mountain, an adaptive instructor poured gallons of infectious energy over Graham’s watermelon-striped helmet. By noon, our child had squeaked over the baby jumps in the terrain park, all smiles.  The experience reminded us that the most basic tenet of teaching skiing remains constant for kids of all abilities: Fun comes first.

Temperatures hovered well below the happy-child mark at Bromley, where an adaptive-skiing veteran introduced Graham to the beginner’s tethers that teach a sit-skier how shifting his weight turns the ski. The kid thrived in the arctic Vermont wind, and we realized that the physical concepts of sit-skiing aren’t that different from alpine or telemark skiing. Blinding flash of the obvious: We could learn to guide a sit ski ourselves, with Graham in it. And then he could try handling it himself. He could learn to ski, regardless of how he got around on solid ground.

On our last day at Jackson Hole, Graham lounged at the Handle Bar, stuffing his face with sweet-potato tots. “And then I went into the halfpipe in my sit ski,” he boasted at top volume to the server. “And I did it twice.” Two greasy fingers waved high. The server gawked perfectly, the way only Four Seasons employees know how. We beamed—not because Graham had learned to yell, “Dropping in!,” but because he was proud of how he skied. It all seemed to be part of being a normal, happy kid.

At the end of the season we went back to Whistler. This time we let the instructor from Whistler Adaptive lead, instead of pushing him to get Graham to try skiing standing up, as we had the previous year. We drank Caesars at the Garibaldi Lift Company, where Graham swooned and blushed when he met a sit-skiing racer from the Canadian National Para-Alpine Team. And the next day our instructor zoomed Graham down the public race course.

We still haven’t taught Graham to ski, sitting or standing, and neither has anyone else. But we’ve started. And along the way, we have taught ourselves to redefine skiing. We’ve identified a way to have fun on snow as a family. We’ll keep hosting his birthday tailgates at Alpental, our local hill, because that’s where Graham wants to show off and talk smack to his standing counterparts. If you haven’t heard, he’s been in the halfpipe at Jackson Hole. Two times. And he’s really, really fast.