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Adaptive Ski Pioneer Makes Snow-Covered Slopes a Level Playing Field

  • Nancy Greenleese

Hal O'Leary loves to ski. The 70-year-old founder of the National Sports Center for the Disabled in Winter Park, Colorado admits that he's spent many years with one eye on the clock at work and one on the snow-covered hill outside. But it's his heart that's made him more than just another 'ski bum.' For nearly four decades, he's taught people with disabilities how to ski, and in the process, how to conquer the many other mountains that they face. The spry pioneer's influence reaches well beyond the Rockies. He travels to Connecticut and Japan this winter to teach the next generation of adaptive ski instructors. Nancy Greenleese profiles the man who has carved out new opportunities for the disabled.

In January 1970, during a meeting of the ski instructors at Colorado's Winter Park resort, the director put out a call for volunteers. Would anyone be willing to teach some kids who'd lost limbs to ski? Only one hand shot up. Hal O'Leary's. He recalls it went downhill from there.

"The first lesson was actually a disaster," he admits. He'd never taught skiing to people with disabilities. He'd never even seen a child without a limb. Soon, he realized he wasn't sure what he was doing. "This little guy, he was hopping up the hill. About 11 o'clock, he kept falling and he was crying and his glasses were down on his nose. And he looked up and said, 'Hal, I hate your guts,'" O'Leary says with a laugh. "So I stopped the lesson immediately and I thought, 'I'm failing these kids.'"

O'Leary isn't disabled and admits he let his sympathies take over. He learned quickly that people with disabilities appreciate compassion but they don't need pity. After lunch, he put the kids on the lift, took them up the mountain and let gravity go to work.

"They started moving and they started screaming, their jackets flapping in the wind," he chuckles. "At the end of the day, this little guy came back and looked up at me and said, 'I don't, I really don't hate you.' And that was my first beginning."

According to Carol Page, who coordinates the sports program for children with disabilities at Denver's Children's Hospital, "Hal is just a free spirit and the kids loved it. He was like the pied piper to the children." She has watched — and helped — O'Leary teach thousands to ski. O'Leary also wrote the first instruction manuals for adaptive skiing and designed much of the early equipment.

From an office in what had been a broom closet at the Winter Park resort, O'Leary's program has grown into the National Sports Center for the Disabled, the largest organization of its kind, offering snowshoeing, canoeing, rock climbing and more.

On a recent afternoon, ski instructor Tom Caldwell helps Mike Wilke direct his small, contorted foot into a ski boot. The 48-year-old Wilke has cerebral palsy. For the opening act of this lesson, they hop on the ski lift.

A quarter century ago, O'Leary gave Wilke ski lessons on this same mountain that they soar up. The kid who twitched and jerked while walking became a graceful skier, thanks to lessons and adaptive equipment that gave him stability and newfound freedom. "Skiing has done a wonderful thing to my life," Wilke explains. "It has showed me how far I can go." The U.S. Postal Service mechanic now hikes, bikes, even rides horses.

Wilke credits O'Leary with helping him open his mind — and eyes — to what's out there. He gazes at the Tiffany-blue sky and blindingly white slope rimmed with pine trees. Halfway up, he says, "It's just a beauty to see this." His voice catches in his throat and tears well up in his wide eyes. "And that's what's great about what Hal started so long ago," he continues, after choking back a sob apologetically. "It's an opportunity to be yourself. You could be in a [wheel]chair, you could think of all your limitations, and when you get up here, it's like you're beyond the four walls. We're so used to being [enclosed by] four walls that we forget what's out here."

Instructor Tom Caldwell points down the hill at some young children sitting in bucket seats attached to skis and steering with their upper bodies and poles… the latest generation of skiers with disabilities. Along with adaptive equipment like ski poles with short skis on the tips to help athletes with balance problems, Hal O'Leary came up with an early version of the sit-ski for skiers who didn't have use of their legs. Caldwell says innovations like that make the slopes more of a level playing field. "It's just cool that everyone gets a chance to get out and be like everyone else in their school, in their class, people they work with."

Caldwell is Hal O'Leary's legacy, one of thousands of adaptive ski instructors he's trained. Now he is the one on the mountain while O'Leary is often on an airplane high above, traveling to far-flung places to create adaptive ski programs.

O'Leary says there's much more work to be done. "We're still looked upon as almost, and I dislike this word, as second-class citizens. We always get what's leftover it seems. And that disturbs me terribly. Before I die," he vows, "I want that to change." He pushes resorts to provide space for adaptive skiing programs like the facilities available at Winter Park. His program even has a fully accessible condo that skiers with disabilities are able to use. Inside, there's the Hal O'Leary broom closet, a reminder not only of how far the program has come but the many doors that O'Leary has opened for others.

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