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As 2022 Paralympics approach, athletes and instructors talk all things adaptive sports

There is ‘dignity in risk,’ says Tracy Meier, program and education director at the National Ability Center in Park City

(Rocko Menzyk) Jeffrey Rosenbluth is the founder of Tetradapt, a company that partners with the University of Utah to design adaptive sports equipment for people with disabilities. To date, their most successful project has been the TetraSki: an alpine ski that allows users to control their movements by sipping and puffing on an air tube.

Editor’s note • This article is part of 150 Things To Do, a reporting project and newsletter exploring the best that Utah has to offer. Click here to sign up for the 150 Things weekly newsletter.

Andrew Haraghey is an elite athlete.

The 26-year-old has been skiing since he was 8 years old. Raised in Connecticut, he honed his skills in Vermont and Massachusetts before coming to Utah, where he graduated from Westminster College. Recently, he was in Norway competing in an international competition.

He also happens to have cerebral palsy. Specifically, he has spastic diplegia, which means his condition most impacts his legs.

To ski, he uses outriggers: forearm crutches with skis attached to the bottom. Used in addition to his regular skis, they allow him to have greater balance and control.

He competed on Team USA in 2018, and is hoping to make this year’s roster when it’s announced in a couple of weeks.

Haraghey is one of many athletes with disabilities who participate in adaptive sports to accomplish their goals.

“[Adaptive sports] are just as competitive as non-adaptive sports the majority of the time,” Haraghey said. “It’s just competing in a slightly different way.”

Tracy Meier, the program and education director for the National Ability Center based in Park City, echoed his sentiments.

She often hears able-bodied people express surprise that Paralympic athletes ski better than they do, but said no one should be surprised by that.

“They might [participate in their sport] differently, but they have every skill and ability to reach their full potential, which can certainly be better than others, with or without a disability,” Meier said.

Equipment and costs

Meier said the National Ability Center runs 4,000 to 5,000 skiing and snowboarding lessons each winter.

In the summer, they branch out to activities like climbing, biking, horseback riding, pickleball and yoga.

Adaptive equipment for winter sports include outriggers, snow sliders (picture “a walker on skis”) and 40 or so different types of sit skis.

“That ski equipment is what really allows us to always say ‘yes,’” Meier said. “We always focus on what people can do.”

Alexander Davenport, who recently took over the programs at Ogden Valley Adaptive Sports, added that every lesson is unique because every individual is unique. Adaptive skiing, he said, is really just skiing, with adjustments made based on specific needs.

For people with physical disabilities, Davenport said they often use sit skis, which allows the instructor to control the speed and direction as the skier is learning. For those with cognitive and developmental disabilities, Davenport said they sometimes need more repetition or more kinesthetic elements.

“All of our lessons are taught on a one-on-one basis,” he said. “That usually allows the instructor to make a connection with the student and figure out how they’re going to learn.”

This type of special equipment and instruction comes with a price tag — sometimes a rather hefty one, since the market is so narrow. Case in point: Meier said a single piece of adaptive equipment can cost upwards of $10,000 to $15,000.

Still, some adaptive sports centers try to offset the cost for their clients. Davenport said 60% of lessons at Ogden Valley Adaptive Sports are done on scholarship; while Meier said that in addition to scholarships offered by the National Ability Center, Park City provides large discounts and sponsorships for services like ski lifts.

“The inability to pay is a barrier we want to remove,” Meier said.

Increasing independence

(Rocko Menzyk) The TetraSk allows users to control their movements by sipping and puffing on an air tube.

Jeffrey Rosenbluth knows a few things about the barriers faced by people with disabilities — his career is dedicated to taking them down.

Rosenbluth is the medical director of the Spinal Cord Injury Acute Rehabilitation program at the University of Utah Health Sciences Center.

He also is the founder of Tetradapt, a company that partners with the University of Utah to design adaptive sports equipment for people with disabilities.

To date, their most successful project has been the TetraSki: an alpine ski that allows users to control their movements by sipping and puffing on an air tube.

This means rather than relying on an instructor to help them get down the mountain, skiers can participate in the sport with a level of independence that may not have been possible for them before.

“Up until the point of the TetraSki, you really needed to have someone behind you that was doing up to 100% of the work of skiing,” he said. “And we felt like we could do better than that.”

He clarified that an instructor still rides behind someone using a TetraSki, but only in case of a system failure.

Aside from the challenges of actually creating the TetraSki, Rosenbluth said one of his team’s biggest obstacles was convincing people that the independence and performance levels they could experience with their device is the same as in traditional skiing.

Tanja Kari, a former Paralympian in cross country skiing who works with Tetradapt, added that getting the TetraSki into the Paralympics won’t be easy, but it is something they are working on.

“We are expanding worldwide. The pool of athletes is growing,” she said.

Dignity in risk

(Rocko Menzyk) The TetraSki allows users to control their movements by sipping and puffing on an air tube.

Rosenbluth said his team went to great lengths to ensure that the TetraSki is as safe as possible. People using the device typically can’t raise an arm to stop themselves in the event of an accident, so he said their first priority was preventing falls.

They ran multiple tests to learn how height and weight factor into using the TetraSki, and even seasoned skiers are required to take a four day training before going out on it, he said.

“After three or four years now, we haven’t had a single injury,” he said.

Meier added that adaptive sports, like traditional sports, inherently hold the chance of getting hurt — and everyone should be able to choose if they’ll take that chance.

“There’s dignity in risk, and every person has the right to that risk, whether you have a disability or not,” she said.

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