Adaptive athletes spirits, bodies soar at Northstar

Through High Fives Foundation, Northstar Resort, and Vail Resort's EpicPromise, a dozen adaptive athletes were able to spend Wednesday riding at the Northstar Bike Park.
Justin Scacco /

Riding up Northstar California Resort’s Tahoe Zephyr Express, Alina Petrik grabs for her backpack and watches as a new pair of Smith sunglasses falls into the bushes far below.

“I can’t believe I just did that,” laughs Petrik. “Why did I do that? That’s what happens when you take your Croakies off.”

Petrik’s mood is cheery, and little can spoil the morning of mountain biking with her friends and fellow athletes from High Fives Foundation.

Petrik is one of about a dozen High Fives athletes at the Northstar Bike Park on Wednesday, and is part of a group of about 20 adaptive athletes that will take advantage of two days of having the park to themselves through Vail Resorts EpicPromise Foundation.

“This is now the third year in a row that we have been awarded an EpicPromise Grant to further our growth in the adaptive mountain bike community,” said Roy Tuscany, CEO of High Fives Foundation. “Bringing together a group of individuals all with disabilities – who all know how to adapt and overcome – there is only outcome: magic! That happens in the form of shredding the trails of Northstar on mountain bikes. We are lucky to be able to offer this type of experience, and we are blessed to know that we are supported in the community by our local resorts.” 

A mountain biker heads over a jump at Northstar’s Livewire route.
Justin Scacco /

The High Fives Foundation, a nonprofit with the mission to provide hope and resources for adaptive athletes, has been organizing mountain bike events at Northstar for five years. On Wednesday, the organization brought volunteers and athletes that have suffered life-altering injuries together for a day of riding.

“It’s turned into this incredible day where we get to host folks for a full day of epic riding,” said Tuscany. “It’s a really great way to introduce mountain biking to a group of individuals with disabilities and at the same time bringing in a bunch of really talented folks to act as mentors.”

For Petrik, it’s a chance to return to adrenaline-fueled endeavors. The Truckee local broke her back and suffered numerous other injuries during a speed flying accident in fall 2020.

Though fortunate to be alive, the following weeks saw Petrik relegated to a wheel chair and barely able to move. She’d find hope, however, in the form of friend and fellow High Fives athlete Tommy Counihan.

“He came over and it was life changing,” said Petrik. “He told me my life’s not over. There’s things you can do. You’re going to adapt, and you can still get out there and have fun.”

As someone that’s been with the organization for 11 years, Counihan has seen the impact High Fives can have on those suffering from life-changing injuries.

“I just want to see everybody else have the opportunities that I’ve been granted,” said Counihan. “I’ve been a part of this community for 11 years, and so it’s important to me to share at this point.”

Counihan joined the US Army at age 18 and was deployed as a combat engineer to Afghanistan in 2010. While escorting a supply unit, Counihan’s vehicle was struck by an IED. The explosion resulted in his leg being amputated.

Through programs like High Fives, Counihan was able to continue his love of surfing and discover a new passion in the Sierra Nevada, luring the Florida native away from his beloved coast.

“Teaching me how to snowboard is one of the best things High Fives has ever done for me. I cannot wait for it to snow, and I’ve never said that before,” said Counihan. “I started falling in love with mountain sports. A big part of the reason I live in Reno currently is because of High Fives Foundation. This is the farthest away from the ocean that I’ve ever lived in my entire life.”

Through High Fives Foundation, surfing still remains a large part of his life. During the summer months, Counihan and other athletes were able to attend the Hawaii Adaptive Surfing Championships and will soon take part in surf sessions at a wave pool in Waco, Texas.

“Everything is tailored,” said Counihan on High Fives events. “I don’t have to worry about support. I don’t have to worry about being alone on the mountain and what happens if my leg breaks. I’ve always got homies to ride with.”

Through its grant cycles, individuals like Counihan and Petrik have been given e-mountain bikes, gear, and opportunities to ride. Tuscany said the nonprofit’s current grant cycle has the largest request for bikes in the history of High Fives Foundation. By the end of the year, High Fives will have donated 200 bikes to adaptive athletes.

The event at Northstar was made possible through the resort and Vail’s EpicPromise Foundation. Local company, Ride Concepts donated mountain bike shoes for the athletes, and the city of Reno brought up a handful adaptive bikes for riding.

Riders rip down Livewire at Northstar Bike Park.
Justin Scacco /

“If one organization tries to do everything on their own, you can only get to a certain point,” concluded Tuscany. “Our partners, that’s how you actually make change. Trying to do it by yourself, it’s impossible.”

While the dozen athletes at Northstar on Wednesday were experienced in biking, plans next week entail a return to the resort with a group of adaptive athletes that are beginner riders.

“Partnering with High Fives Foundation is so meaningful to our team here at Northstar; they are such an incredible part of the Tahoe community that provide world-class resources and opportunities for injured athletes and veterans all year around,” added Amy Ohran, VP and GM of Northstar California Resort. “The Northstar team is just honored to be able to partner with High Fives through the EpicPromise Foundation in this way, and to share in the fun and inspiration that this event brings to the resort and the High Five athletes every summer.” 

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