RJ Sullivan was wearing a huge grin as he skied down the Outer Limits slope at Brandywine Ski Resort and fist-bumped one of his ski-partners, Carmen, as they reached the bottom of the hill.
“That was easier than I thought it would be!” Sullivan told his ski partner, Three Trackers of Ohio Vice President Heidi Lamb.
Sullivan, a 12-year-old boy from Westlake, skied for the first time in his life with the help of adaptive ski program Three Trackers as they hosted kids from Cleveland’s Youth Challenge, a non-profit agency that provides sports and recreation programs for children with physical disabilities.
RJ’s mother, Suzanne, said RJ was diagnosed when he was 6-years-old with Duchenne muscular dystrophy, a progressively worsening disability.
“Without Three Trackers he wouldn’t be able to ski,” Suzanne said. “All his friends in the sixth grade are in ski club and he thought it be really cool to try it, experience the feeling of skiing and tell his friends.”
Suzanne said her son is a little “daredevil” having tried zip lining and ice skating in the past and RJ said he liked going fast.
RJ can thank a former Olympian and communist defector for his chance to ski.
Three Trackers was founded in 1980 by Norbert Fischer, a former Cleveland resident who died in 2013 at age 87.
Fischer brought his love of skiing to the United States after defecting to the West during a ski competition in Austria, where he was competing as a member of the 1948 Hungarian Olympic Team.
Once in the United States, Fischer promoted the sport of skiing as a writer, working for trade publications and as a sports columnist for The Morning Journal in Lorain. According to North American Snowsports Journalists Association, Fischer said he loved skiing “Because it brought me true freedom.”
He ran the Bert Fischer Ski School at Boston Mills and Brandywine Ski Resort and also taught disabled veterans and amputees to ski, working with designers to create specialized equipment. He is recognized as one of those “who were fundamental in developing the adaptive skiing industry,” according to The National Disabled Ski Hall of Fame, of which Fischer is a member.
Dietz said with the adaptive equipment Fischer pioneered, there were three tracks in the snow, one from the ski, and two from the hand-held outriggers, which take the place of a regular ski pole to assist with balance.
Thus, Three Trackers of Ohio was named.
Dietz said the adaptive skiing program was one of the first in the United States and is now a sub-chapter of Disabled Sports USA.
Three Trackers is volunteer-based non-profit, program to help children and adults with disabilities be able to ski.
Dietz said Brandywine helps with the ski lift tickets by giving a buy one get one so a ski buddy can go up the hill with the skier, but the cost of insurance skiing is the only program Three Trackers is running right now.
“We have had some parents interested in fund raising for other programs like hand cycling but we need grant writers,” Dietz said. “There are grants available but we need someone who has time to actually write them and apply for them.”
The program is all volunteers with have no paid staff or instructors, Dietz said.
“Everybody is here because they love to teach the adaptive sport and they love working with all the students we have come in here,”he said.
Three Trackers currently has approximately 50 skiers and 25 volunteers. It takes anywhere from two to three volunteers per skier depending on the type of skiing they do.
Jane Rapp, a 19-year-old skier, out with Three Trackers for her second time as part of the Youth Challenge, said she loved going fast down the hill as she was getting seated for her sit-ski lesson. She added she loved being out in the snow.
Skiers who can’t stand are seated on a spring loaded seat that is attached to either a “bi-ski” or a “mono-ski.” Dietz said the mono-ski is for advanced skiers with exceptional balance as it is more difficult to navigate. He said most participants who do the sit-down lessons utilize the “bi-ski” which allows for more control.
Stand-up skiers use typical ski gear and usually hand-held outriggers in place of ski poles.
“Three Track” skiing is usually for people missing one leg. For those with more strength in both legs, there is also adaptive equipment like the outriggers to use to help them balance.
Students who ski with Three Trackers are paraplegic, quadriplegic, or have cerebral palsy, muscular dystrophy or other disabilities. Some are even blind. A tether line is often used by instructors for safety purposes.
“The goal is to make the equipment offset the disability,” Dietz said. “So whatever they don’t have function with, the adaptive equipment makes up for that.”
Katie Knight, a seventh grader from Bay Village, has cerebral palsy of her legs and skied for her second time with Three Trackers. She had a stand-up lesson and smiled at her mom as she skied past to get on the lift to go back up the hill.
Dietz said he gets feedback from participants’ parents the program helps kids with their mind-set regarding their disability, that they are calmer, or do better in school.
“They’ve gone from a mind-set of ‘I can’t do something I am in a wheelchair’ to ‘I can do something’,” Dietz said. “‘I am able to ski, I am able to do so much more in life.’
“There is a carryover, it’s not just about being able to snow ski, it’s about being able to live a normal functional life,” he said.
Briana Barker: 330-541-9432