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Miles of Smiles
(02/13/2009) By Dan Balkin HoliMont SnowSports School

I love capitalism. Sure, capitalism has a few rough edges, but it has been good to me. Every year, a friend of mine takes me on a “business trip” to Utah. The business consists of two dinners with his clients. The rest of the trip consists of skiing. I really never knew that business was so much fun: dinner, drinks, skiing. I think I missed my calling.

We usually spend one day skiing at Snow Basin. This ski area was totally overhauled for the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics and was the site of the Olympic Downhill. One day when we were at Snow Basin the sun was out, the snow was soft, and I was feeling great. Suddenly, I could hear some familiar sounds behind me. I usually know what this means: a skier with limited skills but an outsized ego is about to pass me to prove that he can ski faster than I can. Whishhhhhhh… the skier passed me in a flash. But wait, this person was a great skier, much better than I. And it was not a he – it was a she – I could make out the anatomical outlines immediately because she had a speed suit on that flattered her athletic physique. And, this amazing athlete only had one leg.

Yes, one leg. I had stumbled onto one of the training runs for the Para-Olympics. I had just been passed be a female skier on one leg who was making some of the crispest carved turns I had ever seen. As the philosopher said, “It is well to be humble.”

I was pleasantly humbled that day, and I am joyously humbled every year when HoliMont Snowsports School’s Phoenix program hosts its adaptive race. Let me say this right up front, this article is not about patronizing people with disabilities. I’m not going to pretend that I understand the first thing about what it means for the adaptive skiers or their parents and families to live with their disabilities 24/7. I can only say, from the bottom of my heart, that all of you have earned my respect and admiration. I have the privilege of occasionally spending some time in the Phoenix room at the Snowsports School Learning Center. There is no place at HoliMont that better exemplifies why we pride ourselves in being a family resort. Need to see what caring about each other looks like? Spend even a few minutes there and you will see an extended family of people – adaptive skiers, their siblings, parents, and instructors who have formed warm bond with one another.

By the way, some of our Phoenix instructors are among the best we have. If you see a sitz skier on the hill that needs assistance to ski, you can rest assured that the instructor entrusted to operate the safety rope could rip up Greer Hill. That instructor must have exceptional skiing skills in order to help safely control the sitz ski.

But our adaptive instructors never lose sight of the real stars – the kids in the nifty orange team outfits. I know a little bit about how they feel. I still love to walk into our Learning Center – to be part of a team, to see one’s friends. I’m sure these kids feel the same way.

And so, even in our imperfect world, one day a year we have the perfect ski race: perfect in joy; perfect in courage; perfect in tenacity. Anyone who watches this race for even a few minutes would see the best qualities that humans can muster. Larry Robinson, a race coach and the official timekeeper for all of HoliMont’s races told me it is a profoundly moving experience to watch all of the racers come down the course – each one rising up to meet his or her unique challenge.

The brief award ceremony at the end of the race is among my happiest moments every year. Every face in the room is beaming. The kids are bursting with well-earned pride over what they have accomplished. They raced and they won. I am not saying that lightly. Just getting down the course is a real struggle for some of these kids. But they all persevere – and each one of them can truly say that they won.

Chuck Richardson, the tireless director of the HoliMont Snowsports School’s Phoenix program said it best. “Adaptive skiing is not about feeling sorry for kids. It is about letting kids prove what they can do.”

When the kids come up with their teammates to pick up their medals, they are ecstatic.

They are part of something bigger than themselves. I love to look out across the room at the awards ceremony and see “miles of smiles.” Doesn’t it normally seem that those moments when we establish real and abiding fellowship with others are the happiest part of life’s journey? Sure, skiing and ski races are great, but being part of a group or a team is even better.

I’m glad we live in an era when an ever-larger circle of skiers can find personal growth, exercise, challenges, and happiness on the slopes. No doubt, the adaptive skiers and their families are grateful for the Phoenix program. But these kids also give us a gift. Something is profoundly right about any race that makes so many people happy. Indeed, it is always a great joy, not only on race day, but all season long, to “let kids prove what they can do.”


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