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From the Wheelchair to the Ski Slopes

March 05, 1985|ANN JAPENGA | Times Staff Writer

"There are so many safety mechanisms involved in this sport that sit-skiers are safer on a lift and on the runs than an able-bodied skier," he added. "If someone is certified to ski untethered (to ski without a backup person, sit-skiers must pass a test showing they have command of stops, turns and slope etiquette), they've proven themselves far beyond what an able-bodied skier has to do--able-bodied skiers don't have to pass any test at all."

The ancestor of the sit-ski is a Norwegian invention called a pulk . Essentially a round dish with runners, it became popular in European and Scandinavian countries following World War II, when disabled veterans needed a way to get around in snowy terrain.

More Responsive Sled

The pulk wasn't much good for downhill skiing, however, as Peter Axelson found when he first tried it on a downhill run at the Winter Park ski area in Colorado. Axelson, who was injured in a climbing accident, found it "remarkable" to be able to get down a mountain without use of his legs, but realized that a more responsive sled was needed if the sport was to catch on.

After a demonstration of Axelson's sit-ski prototype, the Arroyo, at the National Handicapped Ski championships in 1978, interest in the project grew, and the Veterans Administration funded research that led to improved models. Axelson's company, Beneficial Designs of Santa Cruz, currently manufactures and sells Arroyos for $1,295.

Although companies in Montana and Colorado also make sit-skis, Arroyos are the sled of choice for competition. Sit-skiers will be racing in the slalom, giant slalom and downhill events at the National Handicapped Ski Championships to be held at Breckenridge, Colo., April 1-7.

Axelson said his company also distributes a cross-country sit-ski made in Switzerland; and he's recently developed a mono-ski, a type of sit-ski that rests about 12 inches off the snow on an actual ski, and is operated with outriggers (skis attached to the end of crutches).

While the United States is the leader in developing high-tech ski gear for disabled people, Axelson said other countries are scrambling to acquire the technology. There is no way of adequately measuring the beneficial effects of "snow, movement, sunshine, gravity and control" on a person who can't walk, he said.

A return to the sunny slopes is perhaps most momentous for someone who once skied as an able-bodied person.

Nineteen-year-old Michael Leight lives in Mammoth, where the ski slopes are as much of a constant as the beach is to Southern Californians. Michael's mother, Linda Conners, remembers a day of skiing last March when she noticed a few sit-skiers on steep runs, and thought to herself the sport looked like fun.

Just a week later, Michael was in a car accident on Highway 395 and became a candidate for sit-skiing himself. When he got into a sled for the first time during Anthony's class, and raced down familiar runs with his mother acting as tetherer, a big part of Michael's life was restored.

Shot in the Spine

Gerard Moreno was another class member who enjoyed skiing--as well as collegiate fencing at Cal State L.A.--before he was shot in the spine three years ago when he encountered three men in the process of burglarizing his home. Moreno's girlfriend, Toby Bishop of San Diego, drove up to Mammoth with him for the class.

Moreno caught on to the sport easily, and from now on they'll be taking ski vacations together--Gerard in a sit-ski, Toby right behind him in Moreno's no-longer-needed skis and boots.

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