Paralympic Sport Club spotlight: Pennsylvania Center for Adapted Sports

By Caryn Maconi | Jan. 03, 2014, 1 p.m. (ET)

From skiing to rowing to sled hockey, the Pennsylvania Center for Adapted Sports puts Paralympic dreams well within reach for athletes with physical disabilities.

Now a Paralympic Sport Club and a chapter of Disabled Sports USA, PCAS began as a small adaptive ski school that offered instruction atop Camelback Ski Area in Tannersville, Pa. While skiing remains one of the program’s most popular activities, it is far from the only one available today.

In 1980, PCAS merged with the Philadelphia Rowing Program for the Disabled, the first U.S. club designed specifically for rowers with physical disabilities. Today, PCAS offers both indoor rowing (erging) classes and, in the spring and summer, on-water rowing for both competition and leisure. Rowers from the center compete annually at the Bayada Regatta in Philadelphia, which was founded in 1981 and remains the nation’s largest and longest-running adaptive rowing competition.

Sled hockey is another of PCAS’ most well-developed programs. The club’s traveling team, The Centerpedes, boasts three members of the U.S. Paralympics Sled Hockey National Team and is coached by former U.S. Paralympics Sled Hockey National Team member Mike Doyle (Doylestown, Pa.).

Additional sports and activities offered by PCAS include swimming, tandem cycling and handcycling, kayaking, indoor rock climbing and general fitness classes.

As a Paralympic Sport Club, PCAS helps develop athletes interested in competing in adaptive sports at the elite level. Army veteran Laura Schwanger (Elkins Park, Pa.), a Beijing 2008 Paralympic bronze medalist in rowing, is a PCAS alumna, as is Scott Brown (Collingdale, Pa.), a Beijing 2008 Paralympian and five-time world champion in adaptive rowing. Four members of the Vancouver 2010 Paralympic Sled Hockey Team began their athletic careers with the PCAS Centerpedes.

One notable PCAS alumna who is new to the Paralympic spotlight is U.S. Paralympics Alpine Skiing National Team member Stephanie Jallen (Harding, Pa.).

Jallen, 17, is missing both her left leg and left arm due to a condition called CHILD Syndrome (Congenital Hemidysplasia with Ichthyosis and Limb Defects Syndrome). She first learned to ski at the Camelback Adaptive Ski Camp when she was nine years old. Though Jallen admits the learning experience wasn’t easy, she said something “clicked” for her towards the end of the week-long camp.

“The first week was absolutely terrible because I wasn’t able to do anything on my own,” Jallen said. “It was difficult trying to make a left turn because I only have the right side of my body, so I was always leaning on someone or falling when I tried to turn. But on the very last day, I was able to do the bunny slope by myself.”

Jallen eventually became hooked on the sport, returning to the camp every year. Today, she credits the PCAS staff for providing her with the support she needed to learn to ski independently, even if that meant an instructor skiing next to Jallen so she could have someone to lean on when making those once-challenging left turns.

Executive Director Jeff McGinnis said Jallen taught the PCAS staff a little something about adaptive skiing, too, whether intentionally or not.

“Her disability makes it pretty challenging to get her to be able to ski,” McGinnis said. “But she kind of figured it out for us, I think.”

Though Jallen hadn’t heard of the Paralympics before joining PCAS, the staff there saw her potential and encouraged her to consider racing. Mau Thompson, a coach at PCAS, gave Jallen her first “race experience” by carrying Jallen on her back down a race course at the Camelback Ski Area.

Soon afterwards, the nine-year-old was invited to a “learn to race” camp in Breckenridge, Colo.  There, she learned racing techniques and watched in awe as the U.S. Paralympics Alpine Skiing National Team sped by her. Jallen’s Paralympic dreams were ignited, and she began racing competitively just a few years later.  

The young standout raced to a junior national title in giant slalom at U.S. Adaptive Alpine Nationals in 2009, and she made her first U.S. Paralympics Alpine Skiing National Team in 2011. Since then, her progress has only continued.

In September of 2013, Jallen earned a gold, silver and bronze medal at the International Paralympic Committee Alpine Skiing World Cup in Australia. Just three months later, she raced to silver in giant slalom at the IPC Alpine Skiing NorAm Cup in Copper, Colo.

Now, she’s eyeing a spot on the U.S. Paralympic Team that will compete at the Sochi 2014 Paralympic Winter Games, which are set for March 7-16. The alpine skiing nominees for Sochi will be named by Feb. 17.

But even as she moves up the ranks of elite Paralympic sport, Jallen won’t forget the local sport club that gave her the opportunities she has today.

“I’ve gone back every year. Everyone who leaves comes back,” Jallen said of the annual PCAS camp where she first learned to ski. “I try to go for at least a few days, even if I can’t go for the whole week.”

PCAS operates under a mostly-volunteer staff, and most of its operational expenses are paid through donations and fundraising events. Participants generally pay a small fee for instruction and use of the facility, although fees are 15-50 percent of the market rate for similar instruction and scholarships for athletes with financial challenges are available.

It is determined athletes like Jallen who continue to motivate McGinnis and his staff to keep the adaptive sports community alive at PCAS.

“We think everybody should have an opportunity, and if somebody has the skills, especially as a potential Paralympian, we want them to be able to develop those skills,” McGinnis said. “So that’s the role that we play. It’s really important; it can make a difference in somebody’s life.”