Serving more than 3,000 amateur and professional athletes a year, Colorado's National Sports Center for the Disabled has been working with people with disabilities since 1970. Starting as a place for children with amputations to take ski lessons, the NSCD has grown into a training facility for some of the world's top Paralympic athletes. And this weekend, Winter Park host the 39th annual Wells Fargo Ski Cup, the organization's signature fundraiser and a showcase for these winter sports experts.
"The Wells Fargo Ski Cup is the only Pro-Am race that have been around for 39 years. We have recreation participants, which are the ones who participate in lessons from us, but we also have our competition center athletes who are elite athletes with a disability," says Becky Zimmermann, president and CEO of the NSCD.
"Most of the athletes are in this program because their goal is to go to the Paralympics -- but there are others who just want to be challenged. This year we have thirty athletes that have trained with the NSCD who will be at Sochi, and it's not just U.S. athletes -- there are athletes from other countries who train with us as well. We're one of a few facilities -- there's definitely not a lot of programs like ours out there."
Though the Wells Fargo Ski Cup is not a qualifier for the Paralympics, it is a great chance to see these athletes in action before they head to Sochi and hit the same tracks that Olympic athletes have conquered.
"The Paralympics are very similar to the Olympics in that they are usually racing on the exact same courses and venues that the able-bodied athletes did two weeks earlier. So there is still the minimum age requirement depending on the sport, but you'll find often that Paralympians may be older than what you would see in the traditional Olympics," says Zimmerman.
"There are a few modifications, but for the most part, they are the same courses that the traditional Olympics use. There's the athletes who ski in a sit-ski and they may be paralyzed below the waist or there or other reasons why they can't stand -- but they will hit over seventy miles an hour going down the downhill course."
"We have another athlete who is visually impaired and she skis slalom," Zimmerman continues. "There are different categories -- there are the sit-skiers and the stand-skiers. This year at the Paralympics is the first year that they have snowboard cross and we have one of our athletes that has a really good shot, not only at a medal but at a gold medal -- his one leg is amputated just below the knee. We have another athlete who is a military veteran who lost his legs in an IED and he does the Nordic biathlon. So, he's in a sit-ski on a Nordic cross country course and he gets to the shooting station and basically tips himself over because he's strapped into the sit-ski, does his shooting, lifts himself back on his skis and continues his race."
This weekend's three-day event will attract more than 5,000 spectators to the Winter Park ski area and help to raise money for the NSCD's year-round training programs.
"We provide therapeutic recreation and adaptive sports for people of all ages with all types of disabilities -- physical, cognitive and behavior disabilities," shares Zimmermann. "We really do this through recreation lessons. So, for example, you can call us to make a reservation for a ski lesson, or for a kayak program, or rock climbing. We serve both individuals and groups. With rock climbing, one of the groups that frequent our program is the Colorado Center for the Blind."
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The 39th annual Wells Fargo Ski Cup begins Friday, February 21 at 9 a.m. and runs through Sunday, February 22 at Winter Park. Learn more about donating and fundraising for the NSCD by visiting the organization's website; individuals who raise $100 or more can ski for free on February 23. Check the NSCD's website for a full schedule of events and more information on its on-going programs and training facilities.