My Adaptive Ski Lessons (or Chasing Chris)

On January 23, 2014, in Uncategorized, by admin

A few weeks back, I had my chakras totally realigned around the very concept of “disability”. In our society, the word carries at times a stigma; at very least, it tempts us to use euphemisms like “differently able”. At its worst, the very word sets limits. My personal realignment came in the most pleasant, and exhausting, of ways. I spent the day skiing with my friend Chris Devlin-Young.

I’ve known Chris for several years. We met through Shakespeare in the Valley (the Waterville Valley Foundation is a proud supporter of SITV programs), where Chris is the house manager and driving force behind the theater company’s sets each season. At first I knew Chris as the quiet but friendly guy in the wheelchair who manned the ticket booth each evening. Later, as I got more involved in the theater, I spent pleasant days with him working on set construction, or striking the sets at the end of the season. We built a friendship based on him being the brains and me being the legs of the operation — though Chris actually gets around very well on his crutches. It was during one of these set-construction days that I learned about the “real” Chris.

Chris the quiet-but-friendly house manager, Chris the guy in the wheelchair, is also Chris the world-champion Paralympic downhill skier. He is Chris the six-time Olympian. And he is Chris, the survivor of a Coast Guard plane crash in the early 1980s that changed the course of his life irrevocably. In the months after his crash, Chris spent a lot of time in a dark place. Fortunately, a friend suggested he try skiing as part of his rehabilitation. He tried it. He was hooked.

In the three decades since, Chris has become one of the top Paralympic skiers in the world. He expects to be proudly representing the United States once again at Sochi Paralympic Games in March. If Chris takes just one more medal, he will tie another New Hampshire Olympian’s record — but Bode Miller isn’t about to let Chris catch up without a fight. The two have a friendly rivalry, and the Sochi Games will be a great test.

But back to my chakra-realignment, as the lessons came fast and furious.

Lesson #1: Olympic Caliber Equipment
The first was getting to know Chris’ specialized racing equipment. Chris’ monoski is to the teaching skis WVAS uses as a Formula One race car is to your average Toyota Camry. His custom-built machine is a weapons-grade alloy frame that Chris co-designed with the manufacturer, incorporating a gas strut shock absorber and carefully calculated geometry. On the bottom, a metallic “foot” clicks into a specially modified, 30-DIN racing binding on his ski — the day I skied with him, he was on a 165cm race-stock slalom ski. The top of the machine attaches to his “bucket” — a custom-molded black plastic seat with a tight fairing that clamps down over Chris’ legs. The fairing is dimpled like a golf ball (I asked him if he thought it made a difference; he smiled and said his competition has been pretty sure it has for the last couple seasons). Chris clamps into his machine just about like you and I buckle into our ski-boots — and he turns his ski very much like you and I turn ours, though in his case the driving force comes from his incredibly strong torso. Chris skis with outriggers, but they are primarily for balance and turn initiation — just like you and I use our poles.

Lesson #2: Disability doesn’t play into it
Once he was clamped into his machine, Chris took off from the landing by the main entrance to the lodge, pushing himself backwards up the hill with his outriggers, faster than I could walk carrying my skis. I offered — needlessly — to give him a boost but he laughed and said it was a good warmup. Then he proceeded to beat me to the chair.

Working through the lift line, I wasn’t sure if I would need to do anything when it came time to board. Once again, “disability” never played into it. We skied to the loading point, Chris bumped his weight off the shock in one precisely-timed press, and we were off up the mountain.

Lesson #3: This guy is seriously fast
Sliding off at the top, we decided to take our first run down Upper Bobby’s. As the “local” and regular Waterville skier, I figured I should take the lead at first. Now, you should know this about me: I ski fairly fast. It’s not pretty, but I get down the hill. I love going fast, and I am not used to skiing with people who are a lot faster than me, because most people have more common sense than I do. Imagine my surprise, then, when I flared out to the left at the bottom of Upper Bobby’s, and had nearly come to a quick stop, when I looked over my shoulder to see Chris about ten feet away and charging at full speed. Fortunately, he is possessed of the amazing reflexes of a professional athlete and managed to miss me by precious inches. As he laughed and said, “No blood, no foul”.

Now that we’d established who the lead dog was, we settled into a pattern of fast fall-line turns and me chasing Chris, trying to keep him in sight. He’s used to long days of training, so just hanging out and free-skiing with friends was a treat, he said… but Chris’ “just hanging out” looks a lot like other people’s personal best. We carved up Whitecaps. We shot the Chute. We roared down Gema. Everything he did, the “disabled” guy made look easy. He was a delight to watch — rapid-fire, perfectly carved turns, edge to edge so quickly that your eyes could barely keep up and your mind began to boggle.

YouTube Video: Chasing Chris

Lesson #4: Olympic-class generosity
After a few fast runs, we made our way over to Valley Run to join a Waterville Valley Adaptive Sports lesson. We were lucky enough to ski with Griffin, who was delighted to meet Chris and get his autograph, then proceeded to lead us and his instructors down Valley Run in a long, sinuous parade, practicing his hockey stops and smiling broadly at his new friend. Griffin’s lead instructor confided that Griffin had been cold and tired and ready go to in – but when Chris joined him, he found a burst of energy. Halfway down Valley Run, Chris asked me if Griffin was always so cheerful. I had to admit I’d never seen him without a smile on his freckled face – but I had also never seen him so happy and proud. He was skiing with a world champion that he would see on TV in few weeks. I also realized to myself that Griffin and Chris share a common trait: disability isn’t a factor for either of them.

Later, over lunch, Chris joined the Adaptive table in the base lodge and spent some time with Jill. Jill suffered a spinal injury while skiing a few years ago, and has been confined to a wheelchair since. She is determined to get back to an active life, and has come to Waterville Valley for two years running. On this day, she had graduated to a higher-performance HOK bi-ski, and she was at once tired and encouraged that she was making progress. Jill and Chris paired off for a quiet conversation about training and conditioning and, I suspect, the freedom that skiing brings them both.

Lesson #5: I can’t keep up with Olympic athletes
I helped Chris get his gear to his van and we shook hands and I wished him well. In a couple short months, he would log another 20,000 miles in the air, and compete in multiple world-class events during the run-up to Sochi. He was off-handed about it all, but I couldn’t help feel at once humbled and proud that I had gotten to ski with someone so literally heroic.

He drove off down the hill, and I limped back into the building. I knew where every muscle in my body was, as they were all reporting in loudly. Turns out that middle-aged recreational skiers aren’t necessarily sufficiently in condition to run at wide-open-throttle in pursuit of world-champion athletes all day. No doubt this one shouldn’t have come as any surprise, but… there you go.


Want to support adaptive skiing at Waterville Valley Resort? I hope you’ll consider joining the fun at the first annual Diamonds & Denim Gala at the Waterville Valley Conference Center on Saturday, January 25th. The evening begins with cocktails and a silent auction at 5pm, followed by dinner and a live auction with the inimitable Tom Gross at 7pm.


Blogger Reflux: Happy, tired children

On January 19, 2014, in Uncategorized, by admin

I hope you’ll pardon me for dipping back into the archives for once, but if it’s any comfort, I feel even more strongly than ever about the mission of Waterville Valley Adaptive Sports. Next Saturday night, January 25th, I hope you’ll consider joining the fun at the first annual Diamonds & Denim Gala at the Waterville Valley Conference Center. The evening begins with cocktails and a silent auction at 5pm, followed by dinner and a live auction with the inimitable Tom Gross. All proceeds go to support WVAS programs. Read on to see why I think it matters so much:

Over the last few years, I have admired the efforts of both the students and the staff of the Waterville Valley Adaptive Sports program. If you ski at Waterville Valley, you’ve certainly seen them, too: instructors in royal blue coats flanking — coaching, sometimes coaxing, often hurrying to keep up with — their students all over the mountain.

Adaptive clients run the gamut from young children on the autism spectrum, to young adults with cerebral palsy and Down Syndrome, to wounded warriors finding their way back from a war zone and reconnecting with life, though all too often a life profoundly changed. The volunteer instructors of Waterville Valley Adaptive Sports are carefully trained in techniques to support and coach people with all forms of special needs. The program is very fortunate to have the guidance of nationally recognized adaptive snow sports expert Kathy Chandler, and the gentle, calm — but amazingly effective — day-to-day management of operations director Cindy Powell. It is also incredibly lucky to have a body of stalwart volunteers who give freely of their time, energy, and devotion year after year, making the program possible.

As a parent of two “normal” teens, I can tell you few things are more satisfying than having happy, tired children. This theme resonates in so many conversations with the parents and loved ones of Adaptive clients as well. Through the program, their loved ones find a special kind of engagement that makes their hearts — and quite often, the students themselves — sing. When their days on the snow are done, they are tired but happy, deeply satisfied, and ready to take on the challenges of their lives refreshed.


What defines people with special needs is not their special needs, but rather that they are people: people with hopes, fears and dreams, and an undiminished capacity for enjoying life. Whether physically, developmentally, or emotionally challenged, Adaptive clients all find something special on the mountain; freedom, joy, independence, accomplishment, friendship.


This year’s Adaptive auction is themed “Diamonds & Denim” — so bring out your bling and join us at the Waterville Valley Conference Center starting at 5pm on January 25th, for cocktails and a silent auction, followed by a festive dinner and a live auction. Register online here: Diamonds & Denim Online Registration Page All proceeds go to support the WVAS programs throughout the year.


Bruce Saenger, by any estimation one of Waterville Valley’s leading citizens, passed away suddenly this week after a brief illness.  If you’ve been around Waterville Valley for any length of time, Bruce has certainly touched your life in any one of a number of ways.  His passing will leave a hole in our civic life that may well prove impossible to fill.  It also leaves the kind of void that only a gentle man who is truly the friend of everyone he meets can create.


Bruce was a nationally renowned figure in his profession – he patiently explained to me on more than one occasion what he did, but to be honest, it was way above my head – of regulatory compliance for continuing education for professionals.  He quite literally wrote the book, or books, that defined his field.  Saenger Consulting has held an anchor spot in Town Square for many years, and this quiet little company has been one of our town’s steadiest employers.  Saenger Consulting has also generously supported just about any cause in the region you can think of.

Bruce was an extraordinarily intelligent man, and someone I personally looked up to for something that is all too hard to find these days – real wisdom.  A few years back, we had an important vote coming up in our town meeting, and I knew that Bruce held a different view that I did on the issue.  I stopped by his office and he kindly spent half an hour discussing the matter, laying out his point of view in clear, thoughtful terms, and helping me understand his vision for the future of Waterville Valley, which was based on logic and numbers and sustainability.  He made a lot of sense, and I appreciated the time and care he took – and the fact that he treated me as an equal and listened respectfully to my point of view, too.

Bruce Saenger served for many years as our Town Moderator, managing our town meeting and school board hearings with a combination of gentle discipline and great good humor.  He managed to bring us all back to the matter at hand, keeping chaos in check with the kind of leadership that is also all too rare. As someone who chairs a lot of meetings in my professional life, I admired Bruce for his abilities as a moderator, and I will miss him greatly in years to come.

Bruce Saenger was a calm, gentle man who always had a twinkle in his eye and a half-smile on his face.  On more than one occasion, he pinch-hit for Santa Claus when Santa himself was unable to make local commitments.  The costume beard couldn’t hide the delight in Bruce’s face at the wonder in each child’s eyes.  I never asked him, but I wouldn’t be surprised if filling in for the real Santa topped Bruce’s list of duties.  He was that kind of guy.

I join with the entire board of directors of the Waterville Valley Foundation in expressing our heart-felt condolences to Bruce’s wife, Cheryl.  Cheryl was a long-time Waterville Valley Foundation board member, who, like Bruce, could always be counted on for a clear, calm, and intelligent point of view.  We deeply appreciate everything Cheryl and Bruce have done for the Foundation over the years.

Thanks for everything, Bruce.  We’re going to miss you awfully.