An NCSD guide leads a visually impaired alpine skier down a mountain. (Photo courtesy of NCSD)
Becoming a Paralympian takes more than physical skill and mental discipline. It requires quality coaching and instruction to prepare an athlete for the highest level of competition.
The National Sports Center for the Disabled (NSCD) offers programs and camps for beginners and advanced athletes in Para alpine skiing and other adaptive sports. For over 50 years, NSCD has built a reputation as a leading innovator in adaptive technology, equipment and coaching tactics.
But there’s another reason athletes from all over the world come to the NSCD Competition Center, located just outside Denver. The instructors are committed to treating all athletes the same as their able-bodied counterparts. No one is defined by their disability, but by their courage, passion and desire to excel at the highest level.
“They’re treated like athletes,” explained NSCD Competition Center Director Erik Petersen. “They want to be the best athlete they can be. My job is grassroots, giving them the skills to be independent, run gates, and go as fast as they possibly can.”
An All-American skier at Colorado Mountain College and BYU, Petersen earned a degree in athletic training. He worked with the U.S. ski team for three years as a regional development coach before coming to NSCD in 2004. He has trained over 300 athletes including Paralympians Andrew Kurka, Jasmin Bambur, Alana Nichols and Danelle Umstead.
When Petersen first joined the Competition Center, it didn’t take him long to recognize adaptive athletes were no different than anyone else, and their drive to excel was just as intense.
“I realized not only how appreciative the athletes were, but how much they just wanted to be individuals, they wanted to be the best they could be no matter what disability they had,” he said. “I just fell in love with (the Center).”
NSCD has been a leading promoter of the monoski since it replaced the toboggan for sit skiers. When gondolas were installed at Winter Park, the Center developed carts to make it easier for athletes to roll into them. Petersen believes innovations like these give skiers the opportunity to gain independence on the slopes.
“They want normal back in their lives,” he explained. “They don’t want to have a volunteer follow them around. They want to get in their sit ski, put their prosthetic on the ski rack and ski on their own or with their friends and families.”
Beginning skiers are introduced to the sport through camps and Level 1 races throughout the year. Instructors make sure each racer is outfitted with proper equipment specific to the event or race they’re training in. Skiers learn the basics: stance, balance, athleticism, and creating angles to make sure skis are running true in the snow.
To advance to the next level, athletes must meet certain goals, including whether they can successfully navigate hills on specific courses and follow safety protocols.
“Safety is a big aspect to alpine skiing,” Petersen said. “You don’t want to throw a beginner down a black-diamond run. A lot of (their advancement) is their comfort level and how good they are as athletes.”
The NSCD’s Bridge Program transitions skiers from the recreational level to race training with the Competition Program. Paralympic athletes assist with the training, which potentially feeds the NSCD and U.S. national teams.
Athletes at the elite level are trained according to specific races they will be competing in to qualify for the Paralympic Games. If they’re scheduled for a competition in Europe, for example, Petersen tries to match an available course matching those conditions.
“Having harder snow is always better,” he said. “We don’t always get that in Colorado. We’re trying to emulate the situation they’re going to be in.”
Petersen values the partnership the NSCD has with Team USA in developing athletes who wish to train for Paralympic competition.
“We’re all together,” he explained. “It’s a small, tight-knit family. Everybody has an understanding. We want to make sure that we’re teaching the same things the U.S. team coaches are working on and giving them feedback and having conversations. It’s businesslike, but at the same time, we’re all in it for the same goal.”
The Emerging Athlete Program offers training for athletes who are already racing but wish to take their skills to the next level. They train alongside Paralympic and professional athletes from around the world. Spring and summer camps focus on super-G and slalom training and fundamentals. Basic dryland conditioning is offered in addition to on-snow training.
Along with paid Professional Ski Instructors of America training instructors, NSCD has over 800 volunteers who go through rigorous training to learn how to teach skiing. Scholarships are offered to athletes of all ages and abilities who demonstrate financial need. Veterans are regularly honored for their service with outdoor activities including disc golf and target archery.
Not all athletes aspire to be Paralympians. Petersen welcomes anyone wishing to learn to ski regardless of ability.
“Anybody who wants to come here to train, even if they can only come here for a small amount of time, my door is always open,” he said.