Saskatchewan youngsters hitting the slopes at festival for disabled skiers

While most people in Saskatchewan are dreaming of summer, a group of disabled skiers from the province are hitting the slopes in British Columbia.

The Canadian Association for Disabled Skiing Ski & Snowboard Festival welcomes young people and their friends and family for a week of adaptive ski and snowboard lessons, racing and games at Sun Peaks Resort near Kamloops, B.C.

"It's a great way for people with disabilities, who may have been previously excluded, to partake in something they can appreciate with their whole family," said Regina's Stephen Bell, an instructor with the association.

Bell is one of 200 people (including 15 Saskatchewan residents) attending the festival, which he described as one of the most exciting events of the year.

The participants have a range of a disabilities — some are visually impaired, while others are confined to a wheelchair — but Bell said that's not stopping anyone he works with. Each is assigned to an instructor to help them hone their skills.

'A very special bond'

Bell said the visually impaired skiers are "ensuring their complete and utter trust with the instructor because they don't necessarily know where they're going."

At the beginning, instructors use a bamboo pole to guide skiers down the hill, but eventually they leave the pole behind, relying on verbal cues.

"It really creates a very special bond between that instructor and the student because it takes trust to get them down the slopes," Bell said.

"We also have a couple of sit skiers here that are absolutely phenomenal — and when I say phenomenal, I mean they're taking massive jumps."

Sit skiing involves sitting in a seat that acts as a substitute for a wheelchair, which has a ski or skis underneath it.

It requires a lot of upper body and core strength, as skiers use those muscles to get down the hill.

"Some skiers have very limited mobility, so they may need instructors to help them with their turning, but I have some sit skiers that literally use shifting the weight of their head to create that tilt on the ski," said Bell.

'A huge sense of confidence'

The five-day festival wraps up Friday, and Bell said the participants are leaving with more than improved ski techniques.

"There is a huge sense of confidence and reliability in being able to do something that other people say they can't."

He said the program is as much as about building new friendships and family togetherness as it is teaching kids to ski.

"We teach them to ski with their families, so now it becomes a family sport," he said.

Bell recalled two brothers — one disabled and one not. They played the same sports, but had never had the opportunity to participate together.

After attending one of the festivals, the skier with disabilities "was so excited, saying, 'This is the first sport I can do with my brother,'" Bell recalled.

He said it's those types of stories that "absolutely take your breath away."