Paralympic Sport Club Spotlight: National Sports Center for the Disabled

By Traci Hendrix | March 01, 2013, 9 a.m. (ET)

Biweekly, will spotlight one of the Paralympic Sport Clubs making a difference in the Paralympic Movement. Created in 2007 by U.S. Paralympics, a division of the United States Olympic Committee, the community based Paralympic Sport Club program involves youth and adults with physical and visual disabilities in physical activity and sports in their community, regardless of skill level. The program currently has 183 active Paralympic Sport Clubs in 46 states and Washington, D.C. To find Paralympic Sport Clubs and other adaptive, disabled and Paralympic sport opportunities in your community, visit the Paralympic Resource Network.

Starting as a one-time ski lesson in 1970 for the amputee children at Children's Hospital of Denver, the National Sport Center for the Disabled (Paralympic Sport Club Denver) has grown to a powerhouse for Paralympic sport, serving over 3,000 participants every year in Winter Park, Colo., and Denver.

Hal O’Leary, then a ski instructor, was introduced to children with amputations for the first time when he volunteered to teach lessons. Helping physically disabled children grew from a volunteer opportunity to a passion. 

From there, he aimed to give physically disabled children an equal opportunity in snow sports. The equipment was nearly nonexistent for adaptive skiing, so O’Leary started NSCD, hoping to provide adequate tools and better facilities for the children who wanted to take on the mountain.

"Since its start, the participants haven’t stopped talking about it to others,” said Becky Zimmermann, who currently serves as president and chief executive officer. "Hospitals have referred patients to our facility and events, participants tell their friends and affiliates send people from all over the country to come here.”

Now with more than 20 sports offered, after participants aimed to do more than ski, NSCD has yet to stop growing. The Winter Park facility is 2,100 square feet, including an adaptive equipment lab where anyone can come and partake in therapeutic recreation, no matter their financial background.

With 85 percent of NSCD’s revenue coming in from philanthropic gifts, grants, events and sponsorships, it makes it possible for anyone to be active and involved in ways that O'Leary could have never imagined. The organization's 1,300 volunteers also contribute to the overall success of NSCD.

“We aim to find under served individuals, low income families and unreached athletes and request grants so they are able to participate. We are also adding more for military personnel,” said Zimmermann.

“We recently hosted a camp with Veteran Affairs and U.S. Paralympics to give veterans a new experience within the Paralympic Movement, and one of the trainers said, ‘I’ve never seen some of them smile until today’ and that is really what we strive for,” Zimmermann shared.

One of NSCD’s main goals is to continually expand their number of activities and events.

“Essentially, we are the grassroots program for the future athletes and Paralympians,” said Erik Petersen, competitive director and ski coach for NSCD. “We really give [athletes] something to build on and take them to the next level whether they are training for the games or simply someone who wants a better quality of life.”

With a mission for high performance, NSCD is one of the leading Paralympic Sport Clubs.

The club is a key training center for Sochi 2014 Paralympic Winter Games hopefuls as well as athletes who strive to compete for the United States in future events.

Alana Nichols, a Sochi hopeful in alpine skiing, is one of the athlete who uses the facility as a pipeline to world success. She followed her four medals at the Vancouver 2010 Paralympic Winter Games with two gold medals at the 2011 International Paralympic Committee Alpine Skiing World Championships.

Mike Shea, a gold medal favorite men's snowboard cross for Sochi, is not only benefiting from the club as an athlete but he is also benefiting others. Shea is the head adaptive snowboarding coach at NSCD.

"He's influential especially to the other athletes who want to compete in the Paralympic Winter Games," he said. "Shea is a great hopeful for Sochi and has a great impact on NSCD’s snowboarding program.”

Peterson hopes snowboarding, which will debut at the Paralympic Winter Games in Russia, will grow exponentially not only in Winter Park but worldwide. The NSCD hopes to be highly influential as the sport develops. 

For NSCD, collaboration with the United States Olympic Committee through U.S. Paralympics' Paralympic Sport Club program has been an important part of the organization's success, Zimmermann said. 

She believes the affiliation is vital to the overall success of the club, as it helps the club serve as a direct pipeline to those who want qualify for the Paralympic Games or international competition. 

But Zimmermann is quick to point out that NSCD serves all ages and any physical, cognitive, emotional or behavioral disability, regardless of their likeliness to be a part of Team USA. It a club that serves from grassroots to the Games.

“We are primarily focused on therapeutic recreation,” said Zimmermann. “Our goal is to help others reach their own personal goals. We have some elite athletes who train here, but we are so much more than just a training facility.”

She reiterated NSCD creates a support network for people with disabilities, allowing them to maintain relationships that will better them not only as athletes but also as individuals. 

Zimmermann and Peterson agree that the services the participants experience is compelling for everyone involved.

“Coming to work here was a breath of fresh air,” said Petersen. “The depth everyone goes here for the organization sets us apart from any other, and the athlete’s eagerness to learn motivates me as an able body to always give 100 percent.

“We have the triangular building block: at one point we have a solid facility, another point is a dedicated faculty and the last point is in the determined and hopeful athletes who are driven, who build their character with every step in the program.”

Concentrating on NSCD’s visibility and awareness in the Colorado area is the main focus for Zimmermann, but with the raving reviews from participants and Paralympic athletes, NSCD does not have a hard time drawing people in for a life-changing experience.

Petersen believes that his work with NSCD has flipped his life 180 degrees, and he aims to continue to enhance others’ as well during his time as a coach and director.

“If I can have just one person look back at their time here and say, “That program really made a difference in my life for the better,” that would be greater than any medal you could win.”