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The Fall Defeats the Fear

New equipment is making it easier for the disabled to ski. Unlike able-bodied athletes, they seem utterly unafraid of wiping out.

March 16, 2004|Steve Hymon | Times Staff Writer

ALPINE MEADOWS, Calif. — The sky is a brilliant blue, the ski runs are freshly groomed and there's a prosthetic leg -- no person attached -- planted in the snow by the lift.

The fake limb belongs to Eric Taylor, 34. He is schussing quickly down the mountain on his good leg, happy not to bother with his artificial one. It just gets in the way.

And then Taylor wipes out. Big-time. It's a yard sale, in the language of skiers. A small cornice of snow clings to a nostril after he rises. He dusts off the snow and resumes carving his way down the mountain.

Once the domain of able-bodied skiers, the mountains now draw more and more disabled people like Taylor. They not only can ski -- they often can ski well.

The list of those hitting the slopes includes multiple amputees, quadriplegics, the deaf, the blind and those with Down's syndrome, muscular dystrophy, multiple sclerosis and cerebral palsy.

"Sometimes I'm asked the question, 'Isn't it risky?' " says Doug Pringle, director of the Tahoe Adaptive Ski School, where Taylor serves as a volunteer. "I tell people there's dignity in risk. Everyone has to learn to fall down and get back up again."

Taylor has spent much of his life falling down and getting up.

Neurofibromatosis caused tumors to smother the nerve endings in his lower right leg. When he was 3, doctors amputated below the knee to save the remainder of the leg.

It didn't scare him away from skiing, a sport his parents loved. Initially, he skied with his prosthesis. But there were awkward moments. Several years ago, his artificial leg fell off while he was riding a lift. On another occasion, a violent crash rotated his prosthesis 180 degrees. When members of the ski patrol arrived, they found -- to their horror -- a downed skier whose foot was pointing backward.

"I told them, 'Just give me an Allen wrench and I can fix it,' " recalls Taylor. "They thought I was in severe shock."

Taylor tells these stories to a reporter between runs down a well-pitched slope at Alpine Meadows, with Lake Tahoe shimmering in the distance. It quickly becomes apparent that Taylor is a fine skier. Although he uses only one ski, two poles with short skis on the bottom help him stay balanced.

The more he skis, the more apparent it becomes that he is fearless, competitive and, as his occasional wipeouts prove, very resilient. An hour later, when Taylor and the reporter part ways, he quips: "It's nice to finally ski with someone who can keep up with me."

The ski industry has for years performed a collective face-plant trying to persuade more able-bodied people to take up the sport. The number of skiers and snowboarders has remained between 12 million and 13 million for 15 years, according to industry estimates.

A 1999 survey by Snowsports Industries America, a trade group that represents equipment makers, found several reasons for the lack of growth. The No. 1 reason people gave was that they had no one to ski with. Reasons 2 through 5 all had to do with fear of falling.

Devoted disabled skiers seem to have no such fear.

At least 11 million severely disabled people live in the United States, according to the National Institutes of Health. No definitive statistics are kept on how many ski or snowboard, but ski schools serving the disabled across the West report that the number is at least 10,000 and rising steadily.

Skiing by the disabled began after World War II, as soldiers returned home missing limbs just as ski resorts were beginning to flourish. But the sport didn't really take off until the Vietnam War, when disabled young veterans found solace on the slopes.

Some of those soldiers formed the first nonprofit ski schools in the nation. Those vets "were the apostles," said Pringle, who took up and later promoted adaptive skiing after losing part of a leg in Vietnam.

As more adaptive equipment was developed, more disabled people learned to ski. The Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990 helped remove some of the last barriers to the slopes by making it clear that resorts had to accommodate anyone interested in learning to ski.

The technology has improved with time -- although it isn't necessarily complex. Sometimes the equipment is as simple as poles with skis or a harness that attaches an instructor to a student.

Sometimes it's a matter of technique, not technology. Skilled blind skiers negotiate mountains -- and even race -- by schussing several feet in front of or behind a guide who shouts instructions such as "right turn!" "drop!" or "stop now!"

On a crisp February morning, five students of varying skill levels gather at the Tahoe Adaptive Ski School. They will do their share -- and then some -- of falling and crashing.

Beth Jones, 13, of Orinda wears a helmet and goggles and sits in a mono-ski, a chair attached to a single ski. She is quiet and determined.

She also skis fast -- sometimes too fast.

"Right turn! Right turn!" screams her instructor, but Beth is not leaning far enough to the side to execute the turn.

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