Ability NOT Disability: Adaptive ski school begins 40th year | SierraSun.com

Ability NOT Disability: Adaptive ski school begins 40th year

Julie Brown
Sierra Sun
Seth Lightcap/Sierra SunSkier Zach Alder rips the slopes of Alpine Meadows with the help of Disabled Sports USA instructor Nick Deffterios Wednesday.
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Zack Alder tore up the mountain Wednesday, carving turn after turn in the fresh snow at Alpine Meadows.

The 25-year-old San Diego man rode strong and fast ” just like any other skier.

Except for one detail.

Alder charged down the mountain on a bi-ski, while two instructors from Disabled Sports USA cheered him on.

“I’m on fire, from my feet to my head,” Alder said, a grin beaming through his black face mask.

Alder was born with cerebral palsy. But that hasn’t stopped him from taking to the slopes. This week marked Alder’s fifth year taking lessons at the adaptive ski school at Alpine Meadows.

“You’re hard core, man,” said Nick Deffterios, Alder’s instructor, after a run. “You don’t quit until the very end. I like that about you.”

Disabled Sports USA opened their doors for another year of lessons last week. They expect to teach more than 1,500 ski and snowboard lessons at Alpine Meadows to more than 600 people with disabilities this season.

In this year’s first few days of classes, instructors have already taught about a dozen lessons, said Program Director Haakon Lang-Ree.

According to Lang-Ree, the secret to teaching someone with a disability to ski ” regardless of whether the student is paralyzed, injured in war, cannot hear or has a developmental disability like autism or Down syndrome ” is to focus on the student’s ability and strengths.

The job takes patience, endurance and stamina. And the program’s staff are mostly volunteers. But the benefits, Deffterios said, can be more rewarding than any paycheck.

“We all come away with a smile on our face,” Deffterios said. “This is the only job where I pay them to let me come here.”

Deffterios is the instructor that Alder requests every time he comes to the school. They’ve been skiing together since Alder’s first day on the slopes.

“We’ve been together the whole time,” Deffterios said. “And he just keeps getting better.”

Alder and Deffterios are a team. Together, they shred the slopes. While Alder leans into every turn, Deffterios, strapped behind the bi-ski, calls out instructions, stabilizes the turns and sets the brakes, when necessary.

A second instructor, Joe Lynch, puts in a hand too, especially to load the chair lift.

“It takes teamwork to make this thing work,” Deffterios said.

And the recipe for success is different for every student. What works for one may not work for another. Different equipment and teaching techniques help cater the sport to each skier or boarder.

“Everything has to be adapted to each individual student,” Deffterios said.

Tahoe’s chapter of Disabled Sports USA, founded in 1967, started a legacy.

It began with a group of Vietnam veterans in 1967. Jim Winthers, a World War II veteran of the 10th Mountain Division and director of the Soda Springs ski school, brought the small band together to learn to cope with disabilities.

The Alpine Meadows school is also the oldest chapter of Disabled Sports USA in the nation. Today, 40 years after the school’s first ski lesson, the nonprofit organization has 85 chapters serving 60,000 people nationwide ” offering a wide range of programs, beyond skiing and snowboarding, for people with disabilities.

The school, previously called Tahoe Adaptive Ski School, began as a weekend sting based out of a car in the ’60s, said Program Director Haakon Lang-Ree. The program moved into its Alpine Meadows office in the 1980s, and is open every day of the week during the ski season.

For more information, call Disabled Sports USA at 581-4161.