Achieving greatness: 5 inspiring people who are taking skiing to new heights
Special to the Sierra Sun
• The mission of the nonprofit Achieve Tahoe, a proud founding chapter of Disabled Sports USA, is to provide affordable inclusive physical and recreational activities that build health and confidence. achievetahoe.org
• For the Truckee-based nonprofit High Fives Foundation, its mission focuses on preventing life-changing injuries and providing resources and hope if they happen. highfivesfoundation.org
IN TAHOE MAGAZINE
This story is adapted from the winter 2019-20 edition of Tahoe Magazine, a specialty publication of the Sierra Nevada Media Group. The magazine, which is packed with plenty of features and advertisements about all that the Tahoe-Truckee summer has to offer, is on newsstands now across Lake Tahoe, Truckee and Reno. Go to tahoemagazine.com to read it online, and be sure to pick up a copy today.
“Go, Char, go!” Sandra Sandford shouts to her 12-year-old daughter, Charlotte.
Strapped into skis, gripping outriggers to steady her balance, Charlotte glides down a groomed slope at Alpine Meadows on a sun-kissed bluebird day in April 2019.
Two members of Achieve Tahoe — a North Lake Tahoe-based nonprofit that provides adaptive sports and recreation for people with disabilities — trail behind Charlotte to assist her, if needed.
Not today. Charlotte, locked in with an intense focus, smoothly finishes her run without so much as a wobble, as seen in a video taken by her father, David Sandford.
Skiing a slope without assistance — and without falling — could be a major breakthrough for any young skier. But this is especially true for Charlotte, who has cerebral palsy, a group of disorders that affect a person’s ability to move and maintain balance and posture.
Simply put, skiing at Lake Tahoe gives Charlotte, and many others with physical disorders or disabilities, a sense of freedom that they cherish each year.
“I just kind of feel like I’m flying,” Charlotte said with a beaming smile during a Skype interview with Tahoe Magazine. “Between the speed and the feeling of doing something by myself, I just feel — I don’t want to be corny or anything — but I just feel free.”
A native of Berkeley, Charlotte said she has come a long way since she first stepped into skis three years ago.
“I remember I used to wipe out a lot — like, every few feet — when I first started,” Charlotte said, laughing. “And so I made it my goal to get down a hill without falling. I think that really helped me. I was just really happy that I was able to do something independently and that I was able to enjoy it.”
Coming from a family that frequently skis, Charlotte said she was “really excited” when she first got on the mountain, adding: “I wasn’t really sure if I was going to be able to get really good at it; I was just kind of enjoying it.”
But thanks to specialized teaching from trained Achieve Tahoe staff and volunteers, Charlotte began making strides — in more ways than one — each time she took to the slopes. Before long, she was doing more skiing than falling. And then, just this past season, she was able to ski on her own alongside her parents and older brother, Nicholas.
“It opened my eyes that I could do something that I never thought I would be able to do,” she said.
David Sandford said he’s been amazed how much his daughter has grown over her years skiing with Achieve Tahoe instructors.
“The amount of energy kids like her have to expend to do this … it’s really hard work,” he said. “From just balancing going down a hill to even going through the lift line.
“It was a huge breakthrough (last season),” he continued. “To get from having to always be with the (Achieve Tahoe) instructors to being able to ski with her as her parent is really amazing.”
Charlotte told Tahoe Magazine she’s already counting down the days until her family’s next ski trip to Tahoe this winter.
Flashing a smile, she added: “I’m hoping to advance to harder hills.”
Jennifer Weast was 16 when her life was turned upside down.
It was the winter of 1977, and the native of Carmichael, was skiing with friends at Alpine Meadows, just as she had done for years. During a run, the young Weast took a spill, just as she had done for years.
But this fall was different.
“I remember falling, I remember sliding, and then I got knocked unconscious at some point on the way down,” Weast recalled in an interview with Tahoe Magazine.
When Weast blinked back to consciousness the next day, she saw only white walls and whiter fluorescent lights. She heard only a soft rhythmic beep — like a faint alarm clock pulling her out of a deep sleep.
Soon after, doctors told Weast that her neck was broken. She was a C5/C6 quadriplegic, the informed her, and would have no use of her legs and limited use of her arms and hands. The then-16-year-old struggled to comprehend this life-altering news.
“In the beginning, I kind of had the attitude of, OK, they’re telling me my neck’s broken and all of these different things,” she said. “But, I really didn’t have anybody tell me, ‘You aren’t going to walk again.’”
Eventually, while rehabbing in Vallejo, Weast faced the reality that the active life she once had was going to be drastically different. Yet Weast, a self-proclaimed “jock,” didn’t let that stop her from trying her hand at adaptive sports. Skiing, however, was not one of them.
“It was a fear of the mountain, or I thought I was going to be too cold … all of those different excuses that I came up with in the beginning,” Weast said.
Thirty-three years later, Weast faced that fear — doing so on the same mountain that took away her ability to walk and fully use her arms.
It’s the winter of 2010, and Weast — seated in a bi-ski, with an Achieve Tahoe instructor tethered behind, assisting with turns — is flying down a snowy slope at Alpine Meadows.
The white snow, the green pines, the blue lake glistening in the background. Weast soaks it all in.
“It just erased 30 years in a blink. I’ll never forget that first day,” said Weast.
Since that unforgettable day nearly 10 years ago, Weast, a high school math teacher for 32 years who lives in Citrus Heights, makes the most of her time on winter breaks and weekends.
“I would go every weekend if I could,” smiled Weast, noting she hits the slopes up to 15 times a season at Alpine Meadows. “It’s definitely my happy place.”
And every time she comes back, thanks to Achieve Tahoe’s Michael Hunter (who is typically tethered behind her), Weast said she’s able to explore new terrain.
“It’s allowed me to go down mountains I never thought I could,” said Weast, who frequents the Summit, Wolverine, Bobby’s Run and Sherwood runs. “It’s absolutely changed my world — back to being just completely passionate about the sport that I thought I had lost. When I go up there, it’s just my getaway to be in nature.
“And it’s the one place I can go without the wheelchair.”
A WELCOME RETREAT
For 17-year-old Myles Molnar, of Pleasanton, his first time adaptive skiing with Achieve Tahoe had extra special meaning. He mono-skied down a run at Alpine Meadows on Jan. 21, 2018 — one year to the date after he suffered a traumatic spinal injury during a wrestling practice that left him a C5/C6 quadriplegic.
“It was huge because it made me realize that I can still do all these fun activities, even after my injury,” Molnar said in a phone interview with Tahoe Magazine. “Prior to that, I thought the days of me doing really physical activities are over. But once I was able to do go do that, I just kind of realized … nope, it’s not over — I can go out and enjoy myself.”
Moreover, Molnar said skiing at Tahoe is a welcome retreat, literally and figuratively, from the daily stresses and pressures. Flexing a 4.0 GPA, the high school senior said he plans to apply to the University of Southern California, University of California, Berkeley, and Santa Clara University, among others.
“Normally, I have a lot on my mind and I’m constantly thinking about tons of stuff,” he said. “But when I’m skiing, it clears up my mind and I just kind of focus on the skiing.”
Looking toward this upcoming season, he added: “Once I’m able to get back up on the mountain, it will definitely help me, both mentally and physically.”
Laura Molnar, Myles’ mother, said she sees the joy skiing brings her son every time they’re on the slopes. She pointed to a particular day this past February that encapsulated Myles’ happiness when he’s on the hill.
“It was a really bad, heavy snowstorm and he and (Achieve Tahoe’s) Keegan Buffington were skiing in the snowstorm,” Laura Molnar recalled. “It was a whiteout … and the smile on Myles’ face was the best thing ever.
“He doesn’t think about anything else,” she continued. “He just thinks about what he’s doing with his arms, what he’s doing with his body. You can see it … he’s so relaxed. He’s free up there.”
Squaw Valley native Marina Gardiner also experiences a sense of freedom when she straps into a mono-ski and flies down a slope.
At age 18, Gardiner, raised in a skiing family, was diagnosed with transverse myelitis, a disorder caused by inflammation of the spinal cord. The rare disease left her paralyzed from the hips down.
As a result, “for the first couple of years, I didn’t ski,” she said.
In time, she got the itch to get back on the mountain. Through Achieve Tahoe (which was Disabled Sports USA – Far West at the time), Gardiner, an undergrad at UC-Berkeley, used her time home for the holidays learning how to use a mono-ski. “I eventually missed the social aspect of skiing,” she said. “That’s a really big part of the community of people that I know and spend time with up here. So that was what drew me back to it initially.”
Years later, after graduating from UC-Berkeley and receiving a master’s in art and history administration in Chicago, Gardiner returned to her hometown. With hopes of working for a nonprofit, she found a great fit with an organization she already had a personal connection with: Achieve Tahoe.
Since, Gardiner, who works as Guest Services Manager for the nonprofit that formed way back in 1967, said she experiences daily the rewards of working for a nonprofit that helps fellow people with disabilities.
“It’s a really rewarding job, even though it can be really busy and really crazy all the time,” she said. “But, I think that’s what keeps all of us here — seeing people achieve new things and discover that they could do something they didn’t realize they could do.”
As for Gardiner, not only has she “grown a passion for skiing” that she never had before, the Squaw Valley native has also discovered newfound freedom and adventure in her own backyard.
“I love the freedom that it provides, the ability to go out with friends and family and do the same things that they’re doing,” she said. “It’s an opportunity to get out of your wheelchair and access a part of Tahoe that you would never be able to do from your chair.”
Alpine Meadows native Jason Abraham was a regular on the mountains of Squaw Valley. A contracted photographer for the famed ski resort, Abraham — known as “A-bro” by his Tahoe friends and family — could most often be found snapping photos and ripping lines at Squaw.
That all changed the morning of April 9, 2015. After photographing athletes skiing off Squaw Valley’s famed Palisades, Abraham and a few friends hiked up to get in a few runs. He dropped into Main Chute, a steep, 53-degree chute that quickly opens into Siberia Bowl. Carving down the hill with control, things took a turn as Abraham tried to slow down.
“I caught an edge and tried to correct myself, picked up some speed and ended up falling,” Abraham said in a phone interview with Tahoe Magazine. “I must’ve hit my neck on an ice bump or something. I sort of knew immediately that I was paralyzed. When I fell, I was conscious, I just couldn’t really move.”
Abraham’s fears were confirmed at Renown Regional Medical Center in Reno. There, the North Tahoe native was told that he fractured his C6 vertebrae, causing temporary paralysis from the shoulders down.
“It was obviously a pretty sad moment in my life,” he said. “But I had a lot of friends and family and community rally around me and help me get my life back together.”
Playing an instrumental role since his injury, Abraham said, has been High Fives Foundation, a nonprofit organization based in Truckee that supports athletes with life-altering injuries. High Fives has provided Abraham with everything from acupuncture and massages to personal training at the CR Johnson Healing Center to full-day adaptive ski lessons with Achieve Tahoe.
“It’s really been essential in my recovery to have their support,” Abraham said of High Fives.
Following his injury, Abraham said there “was a good period of time” when he didn’t think he’d able to do anything more than “sit around on the couch.”
However, through High Fives’ funding, Abraham was introduced to a handful of adaptive sports, including mountain biking, surfing and fly-fishing. And then, in February 2016, less than a year after his fall, he was back on the mountain to adaptive ski with Achieve Tahoe.
Though he knew his days of ripping up powder in the backcountry were behind him, that reality sunk in his first day using a sit-ski at Alpine Meadows.
“It was — and still isn’t — the same as what it used to be for me,” he said. “I kind of struggle with skiing a little bit … I generally need quite a bit of help out there. So that part of it is still kind of difficult.”
This, Abraham said, has inspired him to brainstorm solutions for disabled athletes to ski more independently. Specifically, he said there is technology used in adaptive mountain biking that he thinks might translate into adaptive skiing, which “would make it quite a bit more fun to go skiing again.”
“That’s honestly my primary goal — to develop technology to make it easier for quadriplegics to ski,” he added.
In the meantime, Abraham said he’s looking forward to returning to the slopes this winter. More than ever, he cherishes the time he gets to spend skiing at Tahoe with his wife, Kate, and 8-year-old son, Ebbett, who Abraham said is “really into skiing,” adding, “and that is awesome.”
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