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Spinal Cord Injury Paralysis Resource Center

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Winter Sports for People Living with Paralysis

By: Janelle LoBello

During the Paralympic Games, competitive athletes take the stage and compete in alpine skiing, cross country skiing, wheelchair curling, ice sledge hockey, and a biathlon (a combination of cross-country skiing and rifle shooting). Whether it is recreationally or competitively, winter sports, like skiing, luge and sled hockey, offer fun and active lifestyles for everyone.

Athletes and their mobility
The first question you may want answered is ‘Can I participate with my level of injury?' "Our rule of thumb for the most part," explains Michael Zuckerman, Executive Director of Wintergreen Adaptive Sports in Virginia (a Reeve Foundation Quality of Life Grant recipient), "is you need to know where you are, and that you want to go skiing! And we can provide the rest!"

Different forms of skiing are available for both people living with paraplegia and quadriplegia.
 
Angela Neilson of the New England Handicapped Sports Association (NEHSA) stresses that the level of sit-skiing one partakes in "depends on mobility."

Use on PRC Winter sports tips page


Sit-skiers will sit in an open, container-like seat or bucket, while on the slopes.

Neal Williams, a bi-skier, from NEHSA.

Neal Williams, a bi-skier, from NEHSA.

"Mono skiers are usually individual skiers," explains Neilson. "They have one ski underneath their bucket, and don't need anyone helping. Bi-skiers have two skis underneath their bucket and do need assistance, someone standing behind them."

Overall, NEHSA, also a Quality of Life grantee, has approximately 2/3 paraplegics and 1/3 quadriplegics in their program of 700 members and 268 volunteers. "Typically, people living with paraplegia have good upper body strength and are mono skiers," Neilson explains, "and people living with quadriplegia are 100% hands on" having someone else assist them.

Zuckerman stresses that snow sports depend a great deal on the individual and their physical fitness. "Great abs gives an advantage," explains Zuckerman, "good strong arms and being able to balance forward or side-to-side while sitting."

Williams skiing with a sense of freedom.

Williams skiing with a "sense of freedom."

Hitting the slopes
Neal Williams, a member of NEHSA from Maine, whose back was crushed in seven places after serving in Vietnam, is a bi-skier.

Williams, 60, was volunteering at the 2002 Paralympics in Salt Lake City, Utah when Lacey Heward, a bronze medalist paralympian, encouraged Williams to become involved in adaptive skiing.

Williams, who was never very active in sports, says skiing gave him "a new lease on life."

"I can't begin to tell you what a difference it has made in my life," says Williams, who skied an average of 29 days in 2008, seven hours a day. "The sense of freedom is incredible."

Linda Small, also a member of NEHSA, was 17-years-old when she was injured in 1973. The van she was a passenger in lost control and tumbled down an embankment. She was thrown from the vehicle, the door landing on her back, crushing her T11 and T12 vertebra leaving her paralyzed from the waist down. Small wore a back brace for six years and in 1979 had a spinal fusion using a rib to fuse T10 through L2.

Linda Small, a mono-skier, from NEHSA.

Linda Small, a mono-skier, from NEHSA.

Now a mono-skier, Small never thought she would be able to ski on her own. "It makes you feel like you're flying, open and free," says Small. "I may need help getting into the equipment, but once I'm ready, I'm just like everyone else, and don't feel disabled.  When you think about it, most sports can be adapted for the disabled in order for us to be involved with our family and friends.  There are challenges for the able-bodied as well as the disabled."

Having been a part of NEHSA since 1997, Small has been involved in adaptive skiing, kayaking, golfing, and water skiing, as well riding a hand-crank bicycle.

Loving the luge
Luge is another sport for recreational athletes to try. In a luge sled, the participant reclines face up and has his or her legs between the runners.

Tom Hernon, 46, T10 incomplete, was paralyzed from the waist down after a dirt biking accident in 1997. A skier and luge athlete, Hernon on uses his upper body to steer the luge sled. "You use the pressure of the opposite shoulder of the way you're going," says Hernon.

Tom Hernon keeps his lower body still in the luge sled.

Tom Hernon keeps his lower body still in the luge sled.

"Your whole lower body is perfectly still," explains Hernon, who has been participating in luge since 2002 and became the first adaptive luge athlete in 2003 - placing 4th in the Utah Winter Games racing against able-bodied athletes that year. 

Hernon, who skis at the Muskegon Winter Sports Complex at Muskegon State Park in Michigan, a Quality of Life Grant recipient, encourages younger participants especially to become involved in the luge. "The better you get, the easier it is," says Hernon. 

Sliding in sled hockey
Bill Hannigan, was paralyzed when he was 24 from the chest down with a T3 spinal cord injury in a motorcycle accident.

One year after his injury, Hannigan was attending a New York Rangers NHL hockey game when he was approached about playing sled hockey (also known as sledge hockey). Though he wasn't entirely sure of how to play hockey in a wheelchair at first, Hannigan, who plays in the Northeast Sled Hockey League for the New York Rangers, says, "All of a sudden you get your first check and think, ‘Wow, that's great!'"

Sled hockey itself is played in three, 15-minute running time periods, and most of the same rules apply that are in professional hockey. "It's full contact," explains Hannigan. "There's icing, offsides, two- minute power plays, fighting, and it's hard hitting. You can't purposely run your sled into someone else's. You try to hit shoulder to shoulder." Sled hockey players sit in a sled low to the ice with two blades mounted under the seat.

The equipment is also similar as players wear shin, shoulder, and elbow pads, along with a full face mask. Sled hockey players hold two hockey sticks while playing. "You have two sticks with metal plates at the end that curve," explains Hannigan. "One curves to the right, the other to the left." The other end of the stick digs right into the ice in order for players to propel themselves.

"There's so much more to adaptive sports," says Hannigan, "and the aspect of quality of life. When I go out with the sled hockey guys, it just makes me comfortable with who I am. There is camaraderie that comes from playing, learning, and traveling."

Warm clothes for cold weather
While skiers Neal Williams and Linda Small both feel free when on the slopes, they are cautious of what to wear in the cold weather. "It's different according to the day," explains Williams. "It varies greatly according to the ambient temperature. You control it with layers."

Neal Williams dressed appropriately for the cold weather on the ski slopes

Neal Williams dressed appropriately for the cold weather on the ski slopes.

On a 20-degree day, Williams will wear three layers of fleece, (shirt, vest, and jacket), Gortex jacket, and polypropylene pants. In addition to always skiing with helmets, Williams and Small pay particular attention to their hands and feet. Williams will wear fleece socks and sometimes insulated booties.

"My left foot has less circulation than the right," says Small, "so it is usually cold, clammy and more puffy daily. I was always afraid to use toe warmers in my boots, because where I have no feeling I was afraid to get burned, but there are other disabled skier who use them. My feet get cold but I have never gotten frost bite."

Small uses hand warmers with her Gortex gloves. "The instructors usually don't take us out if the temperature is below ten degrees for frost bite reasons," explains Small. "They know how cold they are, and where on our bodies we have no sensitivity to the cold. They won't take the chance."

Snow sports and self-esteem
Scott Franssen, Development Director for the National Sports Center for the Disabled (NSCD) in Winter Park, Colorado, focuses not only on the mobility of the recreational athletes, but also the impact winter sports has on one's self-esteem.

"We set goals, go through the day, review, and have logs or record their development," explains Franssen.

The NSCD, founded in 1970 and a two-time Quality of Life Grant recipient of the Reeve Foundation, focuses on the participant's strengths, balance skills, core strength, building self-esteem, and changing self-image.

Michael Zuckerman of Wintergreen Adaptive Sports says, "The sports can be life transforming, powerful. Being out there with their families, the wind in their face, the sun in their eyes, they're loving life."

"We've all been dealt a hand," says Zuckerman, "some reshuffled. Those who play their best hand will come ski and snowboard with us."

Learn more
Take a look in the Paralysis Resource Center for information on sports and competition and for resources in your area.


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The Adaptive Sports Center (ASC)A non-profit organization located in Colorado that provides year-round recreation activities for people with disabilities and their families.

Achilles Track Club Achilles is a worldwide organization, represented in sixty countries. Our mission is to enable people with all types of disabilities to participate in mainstream athletics, promote personal achievement, enhance self esteem, and lower barriers.

A Reeve Foundation Fact Sheet on Golf for People with Disabilities (PDF)

A Reeve Foundation Fact Sheet on Hunting for People with Disabilities (PDF)

A Reeve Foundation Fact Sheet on Sailing for People with Disabilities (PDF)

A Reeve Foundation Fact Sheet on Sports and Competition (PDF)

A Reeve Foundation Fact Sheet on Mindfullness (PDF)

American Association of AdaptedSportWorks to enhance the health, independence and self-sufficiency of youths with physical disabilities by facilitating adapted sports programs in local communities, in cooperation with schools, parks and recreation, YMCA/YWCAs, hospitals, parents and other groups.

Blaze Sports501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that advances the lives of youth and adults with physical disability through sport and healthy lifestyles. BlazeSports provides sports training, competitions, summer camps and other sports and recreational opportunities for youth and adults with spinal cord injury, spina bifida, cerebral palsy, traumatic brain injury, muscular dystrophy, amputation, visual impairment or blindness as well as other physical disabilities.

Challenged AmericaThe Challenged America program is dedicated to introduce sailing as a therapeutic and rehabilitative enhancing activity to individuals with disabilities, their loved ones, and professionals in healthcare and rehabilitation.

Disabled Sports USAOffers nationwide sports rehabilitation programs to anyone with a permanent physical disability. Activities include winter skiing, water sports, summer and winter competitions, fitness and special sports events. DSUSA, as a member of the U.S. Olympic Committee, is the governing body for winter sports for all athletes with disabilities, and for summer sports for amputee athletes. Nationwide chapter network of sports and rec programs.

The Handicapped Scuba AssociationPromotes the physical and social well being of people with disabilities through the exhilarating sport of scuba diving.

Hand CyclingWhether for fitness, serious competition, or pure recreation, here's a sport that can be enjoyed by many and provide quite the "ride" at the same time.

International Paralympic CommitteeThe International Paralympic Committee (IPC) is the global governing body of the Paralympic Movement. The IPC organizes the Summer and Winter Paralympic Games, and serves as the International Federation for nine sports, for which it supervises and co-ordinates the World Championships and other competitions.

Life Rolls OnLRO is the story of able-bodied individuals, working in concert with those with spinal cord injury, to motivate each other with the inspirational message of achievement in the face of extreme adversity. Life Rolls On utilizes action sports through our flagship program, They Will Surf Again, which pushes the boundary of possibility for those with spinal cord injury (SCI).

National Wheelchair Basketball AssociationBasketball is perhaps the oldest organized sport for athletes in wheelchairs. The game is fast and fun, and played in dozens of cities across the U.S.

The National Center on AccessibilityNSCD provides recreation for children and adults with disabilities. In addition to recreational downhill and cross-country skiing, snowboarding and snowshoeing, NSCD provides year-round competition training to ski racers with disabilities. Summer recreation opportunities include biking, hiking, in-line skating, sailing, therapeutic horseback riding, white water rafting, baseball, fishing, rock climbing for the blind, and camping.

Piers Park Sailing CenterA non-profit community sailing center that uses Boston Harbor and the seas beyond to provide year-round recreational, educational, and personal growth opportunities for people of all ages and abilities!

Quad RugbyFormerly known as murderball, Quad Rugby is a game for quads who can push a chair. Fast, rough and very competitive.

The United States Tennis AssociationTennis has been adapted for the wheelchair player: the ball can bounce two times. This allows chair-players to give standup players a run for the their money. The sport is growing fast and is very competitive at the elite level. Click on "community tennis."

U.S. ParalympicsA division of the U.S. Olympic Committee, it is dedicated to becoming the world leader in the Paralympic sports movement and promoting excellence in the lives of people with physical disabilities through education, sports programs and partnerships with community organizations, medical facilities and government agencies.

World T.E.A.M. SportsUnites people with and without disabilities through unique athletic events taking place all over the world.

Paralysis Resource Center The Reeve Foundation Paralysis Resource Center Information Specialists are reachable business weekdays, Monday through Friday, toll-free at 800-539-7309 from 9:00 am to 5:00 pm ET. You may also schedule a call or send a message online.

Reeve Foundation Online Paralysis Community Connecting people living with paralysis, families, friends and caregivers so we can share support, experience, knowledge, and hope.

Quality of Life Grants DatabaseFind resources within the PRC Quality of Life Grants Database. Search by Zip Code, State or an Entire Category.

Library Books and VideosFind resources within the PRC library catalog.

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The Reeve Foundation Paralysis Resource Center Information Specialists are reachable business weekdays, Monday through Friday, toll-free at 800-539-7309 from 9:00 am to 5:00 pm Eastern U.S. Time. International callers use 973-467-8270. You may also schedule a call or send a message online.

This project was supported, in part by grant number 90PR3001, from the U.S. Administration for Community Living, Department of Health and Human Services, Washington, D.C. 20201. Grantees undertaking projects under government sponsorship are encouraged to express freely their findings and conclusions. Points of view or opinions do not, therefore, necessarily represent official Administration for Community Living policy.