“Good job, Bennett! Those are some great turns!” exclaims Steve, my son’s ski instructor, at the bottom of the bunny hill at Big White Ski Resort. Steve has been skiing backwards while Bennett follows him from top to bottom in a cautious snowplow—without stopping once. The sight warms my heart.
Linking turns independently down a green run is a huge improvement from two weeks prior, when Bennett was so paralyzed by fear he clung to me as we slowly slid/skied down Woodcutter, a slightly steeper beginner run. With Steve’s coaxing, support, and positive reinforcement, however, Bennett is doing his pizzas like a pro.
Bennett has autism, and while physically he has the strength and coordination to turn and stop on any green run on the mountain, mentally he’s not always in the game. And truthfully, I usually don’t have the patience or skill set to try and foster in him a more fearless attitude toward the sport, so I’m thrilled that Steve—an instructor with Powderhounds Adaptive Snow Sports —has stepped in to help.
With our son, the journey to confidence on the ski hill has, literally, been a slippery slope. The gains he makes each season can be cancelled out if he goes too fast or ends up on a run he deems “too steep.” Then, it’s almost like starting over or—to borrow from a cliché—it’s like two turns forward, one fall back.
After seven seasons on the snow, Bennett, 11, is still a beginner, though his turns are much better and he can now get on the chairlift without assistance. But we still can’t ski together as a family, and we would probably have given up on our ski dreams for our son long ago if not for the adaptive ski programs at Canada Olympic Park, Fernie Alpine Resort, and now, Big White Ski Resort.
We bring Bennett to the resort, just a 45-minute drive east of Kelowna, every other Saturday for a two-hour ski lesson with Powderhounds Adaptive Snow Sports. The volunteer-run program offers ski lessons for children and adults with physical, cognitive or sensory challenges. There are over 80 participants this season, whose disabilities range from autism and Down syndrome, to spinal cord injury, cerebral palsy or stroke.
Photo by: Powderhounds Adaptive Snow Sports
“It really runs the gamut,” says Powderhounds Director, Gail Williamson, adding that about 25 percent of students are sit-skiers, while the remaining 75 percent stand up.
“The point of the program is—is there a reason you can’t get out on the hill without assistance?” says Williamson. If you need extra support because your balance is off since your MS diagnosis, or if your child with ADHD can’t participate in a regular group lesson, for example, Powderhounds is a great option.
“We’re growing in leaps and bounds,” says Williamson, who runs the program seven days a week and can coordinate lessons for out-of-town guests on Mondays or Tuesdays—the only days Powderhounds isn’t full.
Photo by: Powderhounds Adaptive Snow Sports
All of the program's 57 volunteers are certified through the Canadian Association of Disabled Skiing (CADS) where they receive the adaptive equivalent of CSIA training. The training includes a cognitive module where instructors learn what behaviours they might see, how to diffuse them, and how to adapt the lesson accordingly.
“We have the understanding and training to work with those challenges,” says Williamson. Adult participants and parents of child participants must also fill out a comprehensive program application that speaks to individual challenges, behaviours, motivations, and goals. “We spend more time making sure we have enough in our tool belt to make the lesson successful,” she says.
Williamson got involved with Powderhounds six years ago when she was looking to volunteer and “do a little more” on the ski hill. She likes getting to know the different families and understand their challenges. She also loves how the sport empowers people and gives those who might not otherwise have the opportunity, the chance to experience the thrill of skiing.
“That sense of freedom, that wind in your face—it’s absolutely fabulous to see that,” she says.
Ever cautious, my son doesn’t yet appreciate the feeling of wind in his face—that would mean he’s going too fast!—but Powderhounds gives the rest of our family freedom on the ski hill. I also have high hopes Bennett’s confidence on skis will grow as he continues with the program. Together, those things are priceless.
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Lisa Kadane is a Kelowna-based journalist who writes lifestyle stories for magazines, newspapers and online publications. When not exploring the Okanagan and writing about it, you’ll find Lisa skiing and travelling near and far with her husband and two school-age children, hiking with her dog, reading, and sipping cocktails as part of “research" for her spirits column.