April 17, 2024

Opening the Slopes for All

Northern Michigan Adaptive Sports works to make skiing and snowboarding more accessible
By Al Parker | Jan. 13, 2024

Northern Michigan is smack in the middle of ski season, and for most skiers and snowboarders, the rush of gliding effortlessly over the snow is truly magical. But for those facing physical challenges, the downhill thrills may seem very elusive or even out of reach.

Northern Michigan Adaptive Sports (NMAS), an energetic team of nonprofit volunteers based in Traverse City, works tirelessly to turn those downhill aspirations into cherished memories.

“It’s really rewarding,” says Shelly Brodeur, who teams up with Kris Navin to run the program, which began about 30 years ago under the leadership of Ann Reichert, a Traverse City-based physical therapist. “We had one fellow last year who came down the hill and he was just smiling ear-to-ear.”

“The goal is to teach each individual to participate at their highest ability,” says Reichert, who still lends a helping hand when needed.

Leveling the Ski Slopes

When NMAS launched some three decades ago, it was part of Munson Healthcare and included a number of activities, including sailing, horseback riding, ice skating, kayaking, hand cycling, and more. Eventually other organizations took over some of those events, and NMAS now focuses on the winter events of skiing and snowboarding.

Many of the skiers may be dealing with cerebral palsy, Down syndrome, vision problems, and more. Others may be recovering from a stroke or a spinal cord injury. Either way, there are typically more adult skiers than youngsters in the program.

The athletes are all fitted with specialized equipment designed to maximize safety and fun. Some may use a mono ski, while others may opt for a bi-ski for their downhill experience. Whatever the gear, each skier has a certified instructor, along with several buddy volunteers, to make their trip down the slopes successful.

Like every other program and business, COVID interrupted the NMAS winter events and the group is still feeling the effects. Pre-COVID the program had seven specially trained instructors; now it’s down to only three. Even talented skiers require special training to safely aid the athletes, explains Reichert.

“We’re still trying to rebuild from COVID,” says Navin. “We’re seeking grants and donations. And we can always use more volunteers.”

Both Brodeur and Navin came to NMAS as avid winter sports enthusiasts. Brodeur grew up in the Kalamazoo area and learned to ski at a young age. She’s been in northern Michigan for some 30 years and was urged to get involved in NMAS by her son, Jack, who’s involved as a volunteer. Her daughter, Abby, is also a volunteer and is a key member of the program’s snowboarding activities.

Navin, who’s been in Traverse City for 26 years, comes from a skiing family and learned to navigate the mountainous slopes in Washington state. “Our kids grew up skiing,” she recalls. “Friday nights at Crystal was our thing.”

Saturdays at Crystal Mountain

Crystal Mountain Resort in Thompsonville, a longtime partner with the program, hosts the NMAS events each year. This winter’s fun-filled Saturdays are set for Jan. 20, Feb. 10, and March 2.

Each daylong event is full of activities, beginning at 8:30am and ending about 5pm. A typical day sees 30 to 40 athletes on the slopes with their friends and families nearby.

“It’s a real family atmosphere,” explains Reichert. “We encourage families to come out and watch. We have families who are willing to travel from Grand Rapids, down from the U.P., and from the Chicago area, too.”

There’s a minimal cost which covers lift tickets and equipment, but no one is turned down for financial reasons, according to Reichert.

Preparation for the three winter events usually starts in September, but gets intense once the first snow is on the ground. The early preparations involve working closely with officials from Crystal Mountain to find winter Saturdays that might be available at the resort. “We have an excellent relationship with them,” notes Navin. “They’re very good to work with.”

“We started working with Northern Michigan Adaptive over 25 years ago,” recalls the resort’s Chief Operating Officer Karyn Thorr, who actually played a role in bringing NMAS to the slopes of the resort. “The Crystal Mountain team loves working with NMAS because they’re able to provide adaptive equipment, trained instructors, and many supportive volunteers across many disciplines of adaptive snowsports.”

Thorr continues, “Over the years, we’ve been able to accommodate NMAS with space to train their instructors, and to meet, greet, and teach their participants over multiple sessions on snow. We appreciate all that NMAS is doing to support the adaptive sports community in northern Michigan.”

Anyone interested in learning more about the program should visit the NMAS Facebook page, @NMAdaptiveSports.

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