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On slopes, they recapture what was lost

Disabled skiers find freedom and community

For many able-bodied people, facing life after losing one or more limbs is hard to imagine. Facing ski slopes can be unimaginable. Yet Jessica Harney knows from experience how liberating and therapeutic the passion and freedom found in skiing can be for humans of all abilities.

Harney, a 27-year-old from Winthrop, began to understand these qualities at around age 10, when her sister, Kimberly, was born mentally retarded. Skills associated with sight recognition, coordination, and balance also developed slowly in Kim. She was 7 years old before she walked.

It was then that the girls' father, an orthopedic surgeon specializing in sports medicine, had an idea to take the family skiing. The whole family. "Those first times we went to Loon together, we had [Kim] tied onto a walker on skis with bungy cords," Robert Harney remembers. "It was really something to see."

When an instructor at Loon Mountain, Emily Morrisson, saw the Harneys' efforts to teach Kim skiing, she talked to the family about starting an adaptive ski program. That was the beginning of the White Mountain Adaptive Snow Sports School at the Lincoln, N.H., ski area.

As the school took hold and grew, so did the Harneys' love of skiing, as well as Kim's development. "When we began skiing," says Jessica, "it became the only activity we could really do as a family, and Loon became our home. For Kim, skiing was just amazing, not only for her coordination, motor abilities, and adjusting to all the visual stimulation, but also for her social and emotional interaction in skiing. She became social and has a circle of friends."

As the school developed, several students with physical or developmental handicaps joined a growing number of programs, and therapists and coaches used their ingenuity to teach skiing to anyone who dared give it a try.

Such programs rely heavily on the involvement of volunteers. "We have now grown to give over a thousand lessons in a season with an all-volunteer staff," says Harney. "We have nationally-ranked snow sports instructors as well as the New England Disabled Ski Team, and in the last four years, four of our racers have made the US Disabled Ski Team."

Harney's involvement with adaptive skiing and other sports shaped her career path. After graduating from Newton Country Day School, she studied physical therapy at Boston University and this spring will get her doctorate from the Massachusetts Institute of Health Professionals in Charlestown.

Upon graduation, Harney plans to practice pediatrics and sports medicine, devote more of her time to ski and snowboard coaching, and perhaps work more closely with her father in many aspects of sports therapy. Last fall, she branched out by becoming involved with the lives of several soldiers wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan. At Breckenridge, Colo., a program was set up to help the young veterans with their physical lives after serious injuries, most involving amputated limbs.

Many of these vets, after being fitted with prosthetic limbs, were skeptical about their ability to ski. Says Harney, "Some of them would have the attitude, `You're out of your mind. I'm in this wheelchair, and you want me to do what?' But when we get them out there with several instructors and coaches, and get them started, skiing becomes a way they really achieve some accomplishment and, most important, get a feeling of freedom."

One memorable case was that of Dustin, a soldier from Florida who had lost both legs above the knees. At first, he resisted the idea of trying to ski, but finally agreed to be fitted to a sit-down monoski, which required the kind of balance any skier needs, along with great upper-body strength needed to steer.

"He was very strong and driven to becoming independent," says Harney. "So when he went out, he'd really push himself, and he took a lot of falls. He also was breaking gear because he used so much force. And when he'd fall, he'd get banged up. But when the doctors said he was OK, he'd be out at it again.

"Since he was confined to a wheelchair before [Breckenridge], the reason skiing was so therapeutic for him was that this was the first sense of complete freedom he's had since he got wounded. And he put in a lot of hard work."

For most of the disabled people Harney works with, skiing and boarding bring this sense of freedom and accomplishment in a totally new world. "It's a newfound sense of freedom and also reentry into the community," she says. "There is speed, power, competition, and socialization both on and off the hill. What these people experience on the hill translates into their everyday life, with a desire to live each day, set goals, and reach milestones."

Harney points to the example of Sam Pastor, a longtime friend who two years ago tried the Loon program for the first time. "Sammy has cerebral palsy, a neuromuscular disease that affects his arms and legs," she says. "For kids such as Sammy, the accomplishment of skiing on the mountain provides them with something to brag about at school, a topic to socialize with, and an activity they can do with friends, such as a class trip."

Now 23 years old, Kim Harney has gained a tremendous amount of freedom and self-confidence through skiing. Whereas she once found it most fun to ski with the family, "now she wants to ditch us and go off with her friends," says Jessica. "Which is great. She can't get in a car and drive off somewhere to see them, so skiing is the only socialization she has. And that makes it a great power and sense of freedom in her life."

For Jessica Harney and those who work with her, this is an article of faith: that anyone's life, no matter how encumbered by physical or mental challenges, can improve through skiing and boarding. The only real challenge remaining, says Harney, "is getting the word out to people." For information about the White Mountain Adaptive Snow Sports School at Loon, call 603-745-8111, ext. 5663.

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