Paralympic Sport Club Spotlight: TRAILS

By Caryn Maconi | Nov. 22, 2013, 3 p.m. (ET)
Wally Lee, who skis with Therapeutic Recreation and Independent Lifestyles (TRAILS), a Paralympic Sport Club based in Salt Lake City, racing at The Utah Nordic Alliance (TUNA) Wasatch Citizen Race Series.
Wally Lee, who skis with Therapeutic Recreation and Independent Lifestyles, a Paralympic Sport Club based in Salt Lake City, racing at The Utah Nordic Alliance Wasatch Citizen Race Series.

Tanja Kari believes there is always progress to be made in the world of adaptive sports.

Kari is a Paralympic gold medalist in cross-country skiing for Finland and a member of the International Paralympic Committee Hall of Fame. As an arm amputee, she knows the personal impact Paralympic sports has had on her life – but she knows there are others who may have a more difficult time finding independence in recreation.

That’s why Kari helped create Therapeutic Recreation and Independent Lifestyles (TRAILS), a Paralympic Sport Club based in Salt Lake City. TRAILS operates in conjunction with the Rehabilitation Center at University of Utah Health Care. The sport club serves individuals with spinal cord injuries, reaching out first to its own patients who have been discharged and are beginning outpatient rehabilitation.   

The initial idea for a recreational program focusing on spinal cord injury grew out of a 2003 survey given to patients as they were discharged.  

“As a result of the survey, there was basically a request for recreational opportunities that were accessible for them, affordable and well-defined,” Kari, who has a bachelor’s degree in physical education and a master’s in sports sciences, said. “There was a clear, basic need for these types of services for this population. We did have adaptive programs in the area, but not a lot of programs for a lot of people with spinal cord injuries, so it was pretty clear that something extra had to be done to get these people active.”

In 2005, Kari met with Dr. Jeffrey Rosenbluth, the medical director of the University of Utah’s spinal cord injury rehabilitation program, to build the initial idea into a structured sport club.

Kari has been TRAILS’ program manager ever since, and she has never been afraid to push the limits of what’s available to her athletes.

In fact, she views this type of access as something the community is morally obligated to provide.

“We want absolutely everyone involved and able to do this stuff,” Kari said. “With the technology in this world and everything humans have discovered, we should be able to do it – because that’s the right thing to do.”

Today, TRAILS runs seven different sport programs, from handcycling to wheelchair tennis to alpine and Nordic skiing. The program is unique in the wide range of athletes it can serve using assistive technology. For instance, individuals with high-level quadriplegia can steer a sailboat or even a mono-ski using a joystick.

“Nowadays it’s pretty easy to offer a program or activity for a high-functioning paraplegic person, but whenever you figure out ways to push it to the next level to get a more injured person active and going again, I think we can be relatively happy with what we are doing,” Kari said. “This is a professional challenge for everyone working on this program.”  

Wally Lee, a TRAILS athlete who eventually became coach of the club’s wheelchair tennis program, said TRAILS makes access to adaptive sports so easy, there are no excuses not to try. From the lack of program fees to expert coaching to high-level adaptive equipment, an active lifestyle is at every participant’s fingertips.  

Lee, a skier and all-around athlete prior to injury, said he was reluctant to try Nordic skiing again when he was first introduced to TRAILS four years ago.

“What TRAILS does is they try to break all the barriers down, so for a person’s first time being allowed to try an activity, they make it a very positive experience,” Lee said. “I had basically nothing to complain about, other than that I probably should’ve done it a few years before.”

As a Paralympic Sport Club, TRAILS also aims to bring athletes into the Paralympic pipeline through competitive opportunities. Lee and several other participants compete in Nordic skiing throughout the winter, having raced at the U.S. Nordic Adaptive National Championships in Midway, Utah, for the first time earlier this year.

Alpine skiing, wheelchair tennis, swimming, handcycling, and for the first time in 2016, para-canoe, are also contested at the Paralympic Games.      

TRAILS has a unique relationship with the Rehabilitation Center at University of Utah Health Care in that patients are informed about the program and encouraged to consider it before they leave the hospital. After they are discharged, patients remain in a database so that TRAILS can communicate regularly with potential athletes.  

Due to its connection with the university, TRAILS also has an educational component to its programming. At the club’s annual Spinal Cord Injury Forum, an in-depth program that spans six weeks, patients, their friends and family, and students can learn about such topics as mobility, nutrition and emerging research.

Finally, TRAILS has a commitment to increasing accessibility and awareness of spinal cord injury in the wider community. For instance, the club is working with a local organization in Salt Lake City to build a fully accessible dock, which Kari said will be a valuable resource to accommodate adaptive water sports.

“All the time, we are brainstorming how we can develop programs and equipment,” Kari said. “Hopefully in the bigger picture, this may become a national training center for some Paralympic water sports.”

TRAILS is also in the process of creating a national consultation center for adaptive sports and spinal cord injuries, the end product of which will be an 800 number for individuals to call for a consultation or assistance with SCI-related questions.