Skiing for the Disabled

Hometown Heroes, People
on December 17, 2006

Nothing thrills ski instructor Hal O’Leary more than seeing a dozen empty wheelchairs parked at the base of the ski slopes in Winter Park, Colo. “I see people who are double amputees or paraplegics get out of their car, pull out their wheelchair and mono-ski (a molded seat mounted on a single ski with hand-held outrigger ski tips) and proceed to the lift all by themselves,” O’Leary says.

Minutes later, they are whizzing down the runs using adaptive ski equipment that O’Leary helped develop. Since founding the National Sports Center for the Disabled (NSCD) in 1970, O’Leary has made it possible for thousands of kids and adults with close to 100 different disabilities “including birth defects, multiple sclerosis, autism, developmental disabilities and blindness “to enjoy the snow-covered slopes. Today, the NSCD gives more than 7,000 ski lessons a year, and other programs worldwide refer people to the center.

O’Leary, 68, vividly recalls teaching his very first adaptive ski lesson “to 23 young amputees from Children’s Hospital in Denver “in 1970. A ski instructor in Winter Park, he had volunteered to help the hospital’s amputee program though, at the time, no specific method existed for teaching amputees to ski.

“It was a cold, miserable January day, and the kids were slipping and sliding,” recalls O’Leary, who lives in nearby Fraser, Colo. (pop. 910). “After lunch I put them on the chair lift, and it was a melee at the top. But as we started working on the practice hill, they began moving on their own and squealing with excitement.”

O’Leary was hooked, and his new dream was to inspire and enable disabled individuals to enjoy the sport he loves. He began to devise his own methods and equipment, developing the three-track system for amputees who use one ski and two outriggers, forearm crutches with ski tips mounted to the bases.

When teaching a child with spina bifida who had great difficulty standing, O’Leary devised a contraption called the ski bra. “Larry’s skis kept parting and going out, and he would fall forward,” O’Leary says. “So I put a hole in the tips of the skis and threaded a bungee cord through them to stabilize them. He was able to ski and turn without falling, and now I see it used wherever I go.”

A former coach of the U.S. Disabled Olympic Ski Team, O’Leary pioneered competitive racing for the disabled. One of his star pupils, David Jamison of Tabernash, Colo. (pop. 165), the 1982 U.S. world champion in the slalom category, went on to race competitively for 22 years.

A three-tracker with polio in his left leg, Jamison started skiing with O’Leary in 1971. “Without him, I wouldn’t have gotten to the level of skiing I did, and the racing program wouldn’t have become world class,” Jamison says.

Despite O’Leary’s success with his students, his first 10 years were a struggle. “People who felt that skiing was for the ‘able-bodied’ criticized me,” O’Leary says. That mindset changed, however, after his adaptive ski program was featured on the Today and Good Morning America television shows and began to gain national recognition.

In the last 36 years, O’Leary not only has enabled thousands to ski, he’s touched lives and changed their course. Susan Hildebrecht of Boulder, Colo., who has cerebral palsy and skis with a ski bra and two outriggers, took lessons from O’Leary as a 16-year-old in 1977. “Hal is a phenomenal teacher with a sixth sense. He can tell you, ‘Let’s do this,’ and nine out of 10 times, it works,” she says.

With O’Leary’s support and encouragement, Hildebrecht passed the Professional Ski Instructors of America course and taught in Winter Park’s adaptive ski program for 15 years.

“Hal’s teaching goes beyond skiing,” says Jamison, who now works in real estate. “He’s been a coach, a mentor and a friend. He has taught me that I could achieve anything I put my mind to, and that has helped me be successful in my business.”

As adaptive skiing gained momentum, O’Leary has traveled worldwide to help establish programs for the disabled and is a recipient of the prestigious Professional Ski Instructor of America Lifetime Achievement Award. But he still gets the most satisfaction out of seeing a kid who walks with crutches glide down a slope with a big grin on his face.

“I’ve gotten a lot more out of this than I have put in over these 36 years,” O’Leary says. “And I’ll keep on teaching as long as I am upright.”

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