Paralympic Sport Club Spotlight: Wood River Ability Program
The Wood River Ability Program, also known as Paralympic Sport Club Ketchum, has helped disabled athletes “revitalize and rejuvenate” their lives, said founder Marc Mast.
Biweekly, USParalympics.org 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.
What began as a summer trip for Marc Mast to do construction work in Sun Valley, Idaho, ended up becoming a career of reconstructing lives through the sport of skiing.
Mast had the opportunity to go out to Sun Valley in the early '90s but while he was there, he went to ski school and ended up founding the Adaptive Ski Program at Sun Valley Resort, and later, the Wood River Ability Program (WRAP).
Today, he has 30 years of skiing instruction under his belt and more than 25 years helping wounded veterans develop new skills in recreation sports.
“Sports and recreation help people heal psychologically and physically,” Mast said, “and that is what we focus on.”
Through adaptive skiing and other recreational sports and programs, Mast said WRAP, which is also known as Paralympic Sport Club Ketchum, helps injured U.S. military veterans and other disabled individuals “revitalize and rejuvenate” their lives.
“It’s amazing how a sport like skiing can have a profound effect on people’s lives, and it changes your own life,” Mast said. “Everybody, I guess, has to have a purpose, and helping people out is our purpose.”
Among those Mast helped are some of the nation’s top Paralympic skiers, among them Muffy Davis.
In the late 1980s, Davis, then an upcoming junior ski racer, dreamed of competing in the Olympic Games. But during a practice run when she was 16, she crashed into trees and became paralyzed from the waist down.
Mast helped her get back on the slopes. And she ended up earning four medals in two trips to the Paralympic Winter Games, in 1998 in Nagano and in 2002 in Salt Lake City.
“She was an elite alpine racer before she got injured,” Mast said. “I taught her how to ski in Lake Tahoe after she was injured because she told me there were no adaptive programs in [her hometown] Sun Valley.”
In addition, Mast said he reaches out to military hospitals and noted that since 2006, he has worked with more than 600 veterans. Not all of those veterans have come to Sun Valley; Mast also helps veterans at other programs across the country.
Omar Bermejo, a resident athlete at the Wood River Ability Program, made his first International Paralympic Committee Nordic Skiing World Cup appearance this month in Cable, Wis.
Omar Bermejo, 31, is one veteran-turned-skier who is a resident athlete at WRAP. Bermejo served with the U.S. Marines for 10 years and lost his right arm in a June 2008 motorcycle accident after coming back from his fourth tour in Iraq.
“After my accident happened, I felt like there was no way I could go on,” Bermejo said. “But, after talking to many vets in the Naval hospital in San Diego, I felt like there was a different world out there in which I could succeed and decided to never let my disability dictate who I am or what I could do.”
The Grand Rapids, Mich., native said it was “pretty hard” to initially get back into all the sports he used to enjoy, but he decided to run and keep himself in shape by doing a variety of strength and stretching exercises to get used to the injury.
“It took me about two years after my accident to feel really comfortable with myself,” Bermejo said.
Bermejo said he first put on skis in February 2012 at the Empire State Games, where he also was introduced to Mast and the Wood River Ability Program.
“Marc saw that I had natural talent on the sport and offered me a place to stay in Sun Valley to train full time if I wanted to get serious about the sport, to which I accepted,” Bermejo said. “Without the help of WRAP, there would be zero chance I would be where I am today.”
Today, Bermejo holds five gold medals from the U.S. Cross Country National Championships and has made his first International Paralympic Committee Nordic Skiing World Cup appearance earlier this month in Cable, Wis.
“The Wood River Ability Program will always have a special place in my heart since they were the first ones to offer me a chance to succeed,” he said.
Marc Mast with Elitsa Storey in 2008. Through the Wood River Ability Program, Mast taught Storey how to ski.
Elitsa Storey, 25, shared similar feelings towards WRAP. Storey was born in Bulgaria, but when she was 5, she was adopted by an American family living in Sun Valley.
“When I came to the U.S., my body was really deformed due to amniotic band syndrome, and I needed extra repairs to my right leg so I could wear prosthesis,” Storey said. “Once I learned how to walk and be mobile again, myself, along with four other siblings, all enjoyed sports and outdoor activities together.”
Storey’s parents introduced her to the skiing world, and discovered Mast at WRAP. Mast said he taught Storey how to ski when she was 7.
“I learned how to be a part of a team and how to set goals and dreams for my future,” Storey said. “Throughout ski racing and the local ski team, Marc was along my side every step of the way. I still remember how I felt [in the beginning] on top of the mountains — to be free for one of the first times in my life.”
Mast later introduced Storey to Muffy Davis.
“Muffy helped me in becoming a torchbearer at the 2002 Paralympics in Salt Lake City, Utah,” Storey said. “I knew straight away when I saw the Opening Ceremony at those games that I wanted to be a part of it.”
So at 14, Storey started to train for the Paralympic Winter Games. She made the U.S. team at age 16 and then competed at the Torino 2006 Paralympic Winter Games, notching three top-10 finishes in alpine racing. Storey qualified for the 2010 Vancouver team, but due to PCL and MCL tears in her knee, she had to pull out of most events.
“The most exciting thing for me,” Mast said, “is everybody that participated in the Nordic events in Vancouver either was recruited by our program, trained with our program or helped coach our program. I’m pretty proud of that.”
Said Storey, “Marc’s efforts and encouragement along the way are what gave me strength to continue and to love it every step of the way.”
Mast and the Wood River Ability Program continue to make a positive impact on athletes and the surrounding community every day. Most recently, the Sun Valley Ski Education Foundation was officially designated as a U.S. Olympic and Paralympic training site for cross country skiing, and WRAP is the Paralympic sport provider for the official training site.
“As a non-profit, we get a lot from the community — they’re always helping us out — so when we have an opportunity to help to give back to the community, I think that’s also our responsibility,” Mast said. “With the training site, we’re hoping we can bring in millions of dollars in economic benefits to the community by bringing in more people, more athletes, conferences and races.”
As a WRAP ski instructor for more than 10 years, Bob Balk said the program received the honor of being a Paralympic sport provider “simply because of the very hard work of Marc Mast.”
“What Marc does is amazing,” Balk said. “He is so committed and dedicated. I have no idea why he would work so hard, but to me, people like him are an inspiration. I am so happy to have an outlet for my interest in exposing new athletes to my sport which I love so much.”