Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Power Chairs on Ice - second round of a new contact sport

A growing group of power wheelchair users met at the Cronin Rink in Revere, Massachusetts, yesterday to play another round of a new game yet to be named. Is it power ball, power play, ice ball, ice soccer, or something else? Vote on your favorite name to the right!

Whatever its name-to-be, the game was played this time with two teams of four, crossways on the rink. Four players might be more cumbersome on a shorter ice field than three per team, but both sizes work. Thirty minutes seems like about the most time in which people can play together before cold sets in and a break is necessary.

We had four new players, Jeanette, Justin, Joe, and Brian, joining our returning enthusiasts Barry, Richard, Nick, and Tom. Jeanette became the first woman (who uses a power chair in daily life) to play and I noticed she gave the loudest whoops when a goal was scored. Everyone really enjoyed themselves. Brian, who came with others from Spaulding Rehab Hospital to try the game, said simply "I had a blast!" It seems to us that there aren't enough opportunities for people in power wheelchairs to engage together in play.

We are still playing as-is, without any protective devices, in a careful exchange that often involves contact on either side of the fitness ball, which cushions nicely and pushes chairs apart. However gently we play, there is still jostling between players seeking control of the ball. Broken reflectors and a broken fender in our first two games of play cause us to feel it prudent to invest in power soccer guards.
Though to the outside viewer, play may appear slow, much is happening between players who close in on the ball and have to work their way out of a scrum. Someone has to give or push, or use humorous persuasion perhaps, to free the ball back into play. Breakaways happen occasionally and goals are mostly left untended. Although the game has no formal rules yet, a few ideas are emerging for improvement.

You can read about the first round of Power Chairs on Ice here. Eventually this game may break out of doors. In the meantime we will continue on a monthly basis in Revere. To get involved, contact Tom McCarthy, Director of DCR's Universal Access Program, at 413-545-5758 or, or myself at 413-545-5758 or

Please share your experiences and ideas with regard to this new game here in the comments box by clicking on the underlined amount of "comments" below.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Winter Paralympics - Watch for Tyler Walker

I recently caught a glimpse of the Winter X Games on TV. The event being shown involved downhill skiing - backwards - and a big jump with a lot of aerial acrobatics including the crossing of skis while upside down - then a backwards landing and continuation of skiing downhill - did I say backwards? - to the finish. The whole thing put the Winter Olympics to shame. Now I understand why the Olympics are adding events like snowboarding with its death defying half pipe event. There is a new revolution going on fueled by a youth culture of daredevil antics. Not being a downhill skier, it took me awhile to catch on.

And I wondered, is there an adaptive version of this?

The answer is yes, although I don't think the backwards event above is happening yet on adaptive skis. At the recent Winter X-Games 14 in Aspen, Colorado, a New Hampshire native, Tyler Walker, took the gold medal in Monoskier-X. This is a competitive race of four individuals over a downhill course fraught with curves and jumps. These cross races are popular in snowboarding and downhill skiing now and are recent additions to the Winter Olympics (though not the Paralympics -yet). It's not just about speed, its about skill and ability to stay upright and in motion in relation to three other competitors flying down the mountain.

Tyler Walker, now 23 years old, was born with very little spine. Both legs were amputated at age four. Despite great excuses to never consider becoming an athlete, he began downhill skiing in adaptive programs in high school. Tyler graduated from the University of New Hampshire recently with a dual major in International Studies and Geography. His academic pursuits tie in nicely with his current endeavors as a skier traveling a world circuit. You can watch Monoskier-X and Tyler's gold medal win on video at his website His entertaining blog also provides a glimpse of the life and travels of a champion adaptive athlete.

Tyler also competes in slalom and giant-slalom. He won the World Cup Championship in downhill last August at the World Cup Finals in Whistler, British Columbia. Watch for news of him at the Winter Paralympics next month where he will compete on the same mountain. He is a favorite to win. Check him out on YouTube as a child on home-made adaptive skis and training for Vancouver at

Friday, February 19, 2010

Mt. Wachusett Adaptive Offers Downhill Skiing in Massachusetts

It's not too late to experience adaptive downhill skiiing this year in Massachusetts. Mt. Wachusett is centrally located in Princeton and has had a well-established adaptive program since 1984. Skiing will continue through March seven days a week, weather and conditions permitting.

I recently stopped by on a busy Sunday. The place was a rainbow of color and movement with some 3000 people filling the resort, the grounds and slopes on a bright sunny afternoon before the Super Bowl. Seven hundred people had just finished a race. I felt like I had just discovered where everybody goes in the winter.

I found my way to The Learning Center, where Mt. Wachusett Adaptive is based. There I met "Adapt Dave", the first person I've ever met who has built a new name for himself out of such flexible terminology. Though Dave Domke is retired, he now works full time at the ski resort serving skiers with disabilities along with a crew of about a dozen specially trained instructors.

The program is affiliated with AbilityPLUS, an adaptive recreation organization based in New Hampshire that provides expertise and fundraising opportunities to ski resorts serving people with disabilities . Their home base is Waterville Valley, NH and they both operate and support adaptive programs at several other ski resorts in New England. Mt. Wachusett Adaptive serves about 250 individuals in a season and provided 300 lessons last year. The benefit of putting up with crowds at Mt. Wachusett is that their rates are lower than many places further north. The Learning Center also offers some additional discounts. Go during the week and take full advantage of fewer crowds in a convenient location for southern New England.

"About 70-80% of our skiers are in the autism spectrum", Dave told me, "Many of these are kids with Asperger's Syndrome, since this environment is too stimulating for most of those with severe autism." Indeed, while I talked with Dave for an hour, two kids finished separate ski lessons with the program. They blended in perfectly with the hundreds of other colorful kids milling around outside. Dave showed me an orange and black pole, about seven feet long, used by ski instructors to teach stand-skiers side-by-side how to turn without using ski poles by shifting weight and direction.

For that other 20-30%, some interesting equipment is on display and ready for use in The Learning Center. Monoskis and bi-skis are seated skis with, as the name implies, one or two wider skis mounted below a technical looking, solid seat and frame with various suspension and shock absorbing components.
The lesson book was full on signups, including the Massachusetts Hospital School which brings students on a weekly basis and leaves their own bi-skis on site. Dick Crisafulli, their recreation director, was kind enough to send me some photos of MHS students in action on the slopes. Here you can see the difference between the monoski featured on top and the bi-ski shown below, along with a support skier tethered in who physically controls the ride. Independent skiers who are seated or standing may use the outrigger poles shown in the top photo for steering, balance and braking.
"It only takes four pounds of pressure to turn a monoski," Adapt Dave told me, "so if you can only move your head a few inches, you can turn!" To schedule a session, call Adapt Dave at 978-464-2300 extension 3307.
If you've been skiing with Mt. Wachusett Adaptive or any other adaptive downhill program, let us know about your experience!

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

The Sno-Limo: an unexpected discovery at the Winter Olympics

While lounging on the couch watching events at Day 3 in Vancouver, a special little commercial popped up on the Sno-Limo, a seated downhill ski designed for those who don't ski or snowboard and want to experience the slopes. Looks to be quite a solid piece of equipment, designed for parents or grandparents of skiers and snowboarders, those who have disabilities that prevent them from moving independently, or anyone who wants to try it out.

The seated and bundled rider is "chauffeured" by a standing person who rides the back of the Sno-Limo, much like a kicksled driver but minus the kicking. Looks like a blast and definitely my preferred way to enter the world of downhill skiing! Too bad, but I don't think there are any in New England yet!

Exploring their website, it appears the Sno-Limo has been used only in British Columbia, Canada on a small scale at a few ski resorts since the winter of 2005-6. I'm guessing it has been under development. The website indicates that broader distribution is under way. I made an inquiry, but haven't heard back on where people might be able to try the Sno-Limo outside Canada or how much they cost. How about though - anyone else interested in this new possibility?

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Winter Paralympics - Nordic Sitskiing Contenders

The Winter Olympics have just gotten underway in Vancouver. I always enjoy watching the Olympics, but I'm looking ahead to the Paralympics that follow next month. I'm intrigued by how few people take on the challenge of nordic skiing on the US Paralympic Ski team. There are 7 members featured on Team USA's website, compared to 23 on the US Alpine Ski team. Let's face it, you've got to be physically tough to sustain the extreme stamina required to compete in nordic skiing. Six of these seven members are sitskiers.

Nordic skiing competition was added to the Paralympics in 1976. The races vary from 2.5 to 20 kilometers depending on gender and disability. The competition is open to men and women with specific disabilities: limb loss/amputee, blindness/visual impairment, spinal cord injury, cerebral palsy, brain injury, and stroke. People with visual impairments compete separately from physically disabled skiers who fall into two categories, standing and seated.

All of the sitskiers are from out west, so I can't pick favorite from New England for this sport. Monica Bascio, is my personal choice as the only woman sitskier. She competed in Torino in 2006 and had 3 top ten finishes. A world champion handcyclist, Monica switched to nordic skiing, then took time off after skiing in Torino to become a mother. She managed to fit in training for 2010 in addition to working as an Occupational Therapist. Sounds like a super-hero among super-heros to me!

This will also be the second Winter Paralympics for Greg Mallory and Chris Klebl. Chris, disabled in a snowboarding accident, had 2 top 20 finishes in Torino and placed 4th overall in the 2008 World Cup circuit. Greg (pictured here) intrigues me because he is a lawyer who alternates between handcycling, paddling and roller-skiing to work each day in Portland, Oregon. Greg was paralyzed after a skiing accident and had 3 top 25 finishes in Torino. He placed 18th in overall standings at the World Cup.

Bob Balk is the most seasoned veteran of the Paralympics. He has competed in handcycling in two Paralympic Games and this will be his 5th Winter Paralympics. He had three top 20 finishes in Torino and placed 13th overall in the 2008 World Cup. Bob became disabled after falling off a roof and is now a venture capitalist who also designs sitskis. I wonder if he is the designer of the four sitskis "from California" I saw in use at Weston Ski Track last weekend, the same style shown used by Greg in this photo.

This will be the first Paralympics for Sean Halsted and Andy Soule. Sean is a US Air Force veteran who was injured falling out of a helicopter. Active in several adaptive sports, he placed 16th overall in the World Cup skiing circuit in 2008. Andy lost his legs to an improvised explosive device in the war in Afghanistan. Seeking a way to stay in shape, he jumped into competitive nordic skiing despite his lack of any previous skiing experience. He finished 12th overall in the World Cup circuit and will compete in the biathlon in addition to nordic races in Vancouver. The Paralympics offer a perfect place to channel the skills and energy of recovered veterans.
Keep an eye on for coverage. It is there that I learned it can take years for nordic sitskiers to build their speed. This sport is unique in that its athletes can compete well into their 50's and still beat the field. The Winter Paralympics have only five basic areas of competition, yet each one is singularly inspiring and curiously different from its able-bodied counterpart.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Sitskiing Part of Nordic Race at Weston Ski Track

Four athletes affiliated with Northeast Passage of Durham, NH, joined in the competition of the annual Vasalop Classical Ski Race at Weston Ski Track on Sunday, February 7th. They entered the race for the fun of it and to practice racing. As it turned out, distance, times, and placement were not the concern of the day as much as just being there and enjoying the opportunity.

Marlon Shepard, 19, is a student at the University of New Hampshire and an alpine skier discovering nordic skiing this season. He appreciates it for the real workout it offers and led the pack of sitskiers on the race course. He and his team mate Erica enjoyed hot blueberry soup after their race, a culinary reward in traditional Swedish nordic ski races.
Marlon will be hopping on a plane in March and heading to the Winter Paralympics in Vancouver, with sights on participating in 2014 in Russia. He is well-positioned at UNH to receive the training he needs to follow in the tracks of Tyler Walker and Laurie Stephens who are competing this year in Vancouver in alpine skiing. Go Marlon!

Other sitskiers on site were from the greater Boston area and I was pleased to learn from them that they have recently discovered the Weston Ski Track as a place to sitski, even at night. It will be great to see more sitskiing at Weston in the future, in addition to the Universal Access programs offered there by Brenda Davies of Outdoor Access. Brenda and a few volunteers assisted with race logistics prior to offering their second Universal Access winter program on Sunday. Thanks to Brenda, KC, Barry, Courtney, Adam, Nezirin, and everyone else who helped out!!!!

Accessible Winter Open House in Holyoke, MA

A fun time was had by all who ventured out on an overcast cold day to Mt. Tom State Reservation in Holyoke, MA on Saturday, February 6th. While a historic snowstorm buried Washington DC and the mid-Atlantic states, not a flake fell from the far edge of the storm's clouds in western Massachusetts. Despite the lack of snow on the ground, DCR's Universal Access Program hosted a successful open house for residents with disabilities in the Pioneer Valley to experience outdoor recreation activities.

Ice skating on Lake Bray and short hikes were facilitated by All Out Adventures of Easthampton with volunteer support from an outdoor recreation class from Hampshire College. DCR offered letterboxing, nature activities, an outdoor fire, and refreshments in the warming hut, including chili, hot cocoa, and cookies. Ellen Clegg of Found Sounds provided a unique chance for people with and without disabilities to try drumming around the fire outside. Over 60 people attended the event and WGGB came to film for the evening news on Channel 40.

My favorite moment of the day came while I walked past the drumming circle and witnessed a true "found sounds" event when a pine cone dropped out of a tree overhead and bounced off a drum, causing all the drummers to burst into laughter. This was the first time drumming was introduced into a Universal Access program. Cyndy Chamberland of Easthampton, pictured on the right above, commented that she enjoyed enjoyed drumming because she "didn't have to think" while doing it. Ellen's motto, "Everyone who breathes has rhythm", suggests that drumming is an activity everyone can engage in. Ellen (above in red) has been drumming for over 25 years and her students include people with disabilities. To find out more about Found Sounds, visit

Monday, February 1, 2010

Lots of Smiles at the First Universal Access Program at Weston

The first program of the winter season was filled with many new faces and just a few familiar ones. Several families came out to play on the groomed snow track and try out snowshoes, cross country skis and kicksleds. Our program leader Brenda had her rainbow wig specially fluffed for the day and facilitated the action with 5 volunteers and lots of laughter.

Bob Chow and his family had seen the program advertised in past years and made their first appearance this Sunday. His young daughter Melissa (shown above) enjoyed being pushed on conventional skis while holding onto a ski walker for support. Giggles abounded when she got to wear the program's trademark wig.

Bob Posner, a long time and year round Universal Access Program participant, took a leisurely walk in snowshoes with 2 volunteers to find letterboxes hidden alongside the snow course. Inside the boxes were rubber stamps of animal tracks, which he and other participants collected throughout the day.

Next Sunday the Universal Access Program continues from 11am - 3pm at the Weston Ski Track. An array of winter equipment will be available for participants to try out on the snow- covered golf course and new letterbox stamps will be hidden. To register for programs on February 7 and/or February 14, call Brenda at Outdoor Access at 413-259-0009.
The annual Boston Vasalop Classical ski race will be held at 9:30 am and will feature a sitski race. Athletes from Northeast Passage in New Hampshire will compete in the adaptive race.

Special Olympics Qualifier Held in Weston

Thirty athletes competed from all over Massachusetts in an annual cross country skiing qualifying event at Weston Ski Track on the last day of January. Most will go on to the Connecticut Winter Games and compete with 150 athletes there February 27 and 28.

Jennifer Maitland, the director of Special Olympics Massachusetts, started races with megaphone in hand on this sunny cold day. Races included the 25, 50, 100 and 500 meters, 1 kilometer, and two relays - a 4x100 and 4x500. She said that there aren't enough athletes in Massachusetts competing in nordic skiing and skating events to warrant a state tournament, so to gain greater competitive experience, Massachusetts skiers and skaters travel to Connecticut.

Athletes are divisioned by ability, gender and age. Conditions were perfect at the Weston Ski Track, the only nordic facility in Massachusetts that makes snow. Smiles and enthusiastic cheering were prevalent as racers took off in their separate tracks and even when they were well out of hearing range. Susannah is shown completing her race above.

The Massachusetts Winter Games will take place in Worcester on March 13 and 14. Athletes will compete indoors in basketball, bowling, and floor hockey. Alpine skiing events will be held at Mt. Wachusett. For more information, visit