Undaunted

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Although Mt. Ellen’s season had been loaded with powder days—including that Martin Luther King Sunday when the parking lot maxed out by ten o’clock—the morning I had a ski date with two Vermont Adaptive Ski & Sports athletes was rainy and gray. I wasn’t even sure I should unload my skis and boots from the car. But soon after I entered the base lodge, I realized that a little rain was not daunting this crew.

The area in and around the Vermont Adaptive office, in a small corner of the lodge, was abuzz with activity—parents sitting at picnic tables, athletes putting on boots or digging mittens from boot bags, volunteers in green jackets preparing to head out. Twenty-two-year-old Chris Riley, of Moretown, was geared up and ready to go, wearing a transparent Disney rain poncho over his orange ski jacket.

“Rain or shine, we’re skiing!” Riley announced as he walked through the lodge, smiling and hugging friends as he went. It was the final day of the season at Mt. Ellen, and for the Vermont Adaptive program there, and Riley was eager to get out onto the slopes.

I sought out Emily Cioffi, a cheerful dark-haired woman in her late twenties who was cruising around the small Vermont Adaptive office in her wheelchair. Cioffi reminded me that we had met once before, at a ski day with the Kelly Brush Foundation at Lincoln Peak the previous year (see “Sugarbush’s Adaptive Sports Triumvirate,” page 38). She introduced me to a tall dark-haired guy with a beard who turned out to be her fiancé, Erik Winchell. Riley came into the room like a windstorm and immediately made himself comfortable on Cioffi’s lap, ski boots and all.

Cioffi found Vermont Adaptive six years ago, when, after her eleventh hip surgery, her surgeon told her that the hip dysplasia and associated neurological issues she had been diagnosed with at age eighteen had caused permanent damage. Her aspirations to be a professional ballerina were shot; ski racing, however, was still a possibility.

I learned quickly that Cioffi is not someone who dabbles in things that interest her; she goes full throttle. She’s a phlebotomist who practiced at Beverly Hospital in Massachusetts and is now pursuing not one but two master’s degrees—in health informatics, and to become a physician’s assistant. She founded the Hip Hop 5K and 10K race series seven years ago to fundraise for hip dysplasia research after learning that treatment for those with her disease had not changed in thirty years. She likes to bake, and in 2012 won the NBC Today show’s “Quest for the Best” national birthday cake contest, judged by Martha Stewart. And once she began skiing on a monoski with Vermont Adaptive, she became a volunteer, then a race coach, and then a member of the organization’s board.

Cioffi let me know that Riley and Winchell were ready to ski and, mirroring her own go-get-’em attitude, weren’t really up for waiting around. I hurriedly put on my gear and headed out the door onto the snow. I popped into my bindings and skied down to catch them in the corral leading to the Green Mountain Express Quad. In line, playful banter between Cioffi and the lifties ensued—wisecracks flying like they were all old friends—and the lifties slowed the chair for Cioffi to load her monoski. She and Riley were clearly regulars here.

On the chairlift ride, as the rain came down, I chatted with Riley about his love of skiing—and skiing fast. Riley, who was born with Down syndrome, first got on skis at the age of two, and his family discovered Vermont Adaptive several years later through a friend. That first season, he participated in a lesson program, skiing on his own two skis while tethered to volunteers. In 2005, when Riley was eight, he joined the Vermont Adaptive Race Team.

At first, it didn’t go smoothly. That year, Norm Staunton, the current director of technical operations and advancement for Vermont Adaptive, was in his first season as a volunteer. Maggie Burke, then the program director at Mt. Ellen, had taken Staunton aside and asked him if he could spend some time with one of their athletes who was struggling in the race program. It was Riley. “Chris was very hesitant to go skiing, and there were lots of struggles to get boots on and get on the hill. Many afternoons were spent sitting on the rock ledge outside the lodge, just talking. Other days, we got some runs in,” Staunton recalled.

When Burke took on the job as program director in 2007, one of her primary goals was to establish consistency between the volunteer staff and the athletes they worked with. Athletes with certain disabilities really needed to be able to build a relationship with their coach before they felt comfortable actually going skiing. “It takes time and patience,” said Staunton. “And the relationship is a big part of it.”

Slowly, Staunton was able to earn Riley’s trust. In addition to long talks on the rock ledge, Staunton employed every parent’s secret weapon: bribery. “There was a heavy dose of bargaining,” Staunton recalled. “Chris was super motivated by French fries. We would go into the cafeteria and see Gary (Gary McCullough, the smiling bald guy who was in charge of food-and-beverage operations at Mt. Ellen for close to twenty years). Gary would pick out an order of French fries, wrap it up in tinfoil, and we would take it back to the office. The deal was, we go out and ski for half our lesson, and when we come back in, Chris gets half his French fries.”

Hearing Staunton describe the details of this bargain made me feel a little emotional, but he stopped my thought before I could express it. “People will say, ‘Oh, you’re so amazing that you do this type of work.’ No. I am the most selfish bastard—I don’t do this to be a good person. This work makes me happy.”

Riley worked exclusively with Staunton for several years, until Riley felt comfortable skiing with others. “Skiing with others” may be an understatement, as Riley has formed some of his most meaningful relationships with people he has met on the race team. He is able to straddle the line between athlete and volunteer, in that he now assists in setting up and taking down the race course, and occasionally helps with other athletes’ lessons. He is also a consistent silver medal winner at the Vermont Special Olympics, held at Pico Mountain in Killington each year.

I’m kind of surprised Riley’s not bringing home golds, given how quickly he left me behind as we skied down intermediate runs Joe’s Cruiser and Crackerjack. Though Cioffi asked Riley to stay with us, his need for speed took over. “See ya, suckers!” he announced happily as he skied away. My recollection of having previously met Cioffi became clearer as I watched her masterful turns on the monoski—she really ripped. I’ve been skiing since I was four, and I wasn’t expecting to get left behind on this outing. But there I was, at the end of the corral at Green Mountain Express, barely catching up with my group. I slipped onto the chair just in time.

We took a run down Which Way and Straight Shot, and Riley didn’t miss his chance for some wordplay with the trail names. He loves to make puns, a habit he picked up from his mother, Ellen, at a very early age. “Which Way are we going?” he questioned. “Which Way!” Pole bumps were traded as everyone laughed.

I had announced that this was my last run, as my gear was failing me and I was soaked through. But back at the bottom, I yearned for another run with Riley and Cioffi, who were so clearly undeterred by the rain. They were having fun, and that spirit enticed me back. I got on a chair behind them, catching them just as they were setting off for a last swift run down North Star and Straight Shot. Once down, we beelined into the base lodge and peeled off our wet layers.

When we’d left the lodge initially, Maggie Burke had been lounging on the couch chatting with a friend. Now she was dancing with another staff member and an athlete in a wheelchair in the center of the lodge. Others were slowly joining what would become an impromptu dance party, smiling, swaying, and waving their arms to the music. It was another reminder that at Vermont Adaptive, nothing gets in the way of showing these athletes a good time. The staff and the volunteers are all in, and the families love them for it.

When we met earlier, Ellen Riley told me about her family’s experience with Vermont Adaptive, and the impact the organization and its staff has had on her son’s life. She mentioned a meeting her family had with Moretown Elementary School staff when they were planning Riley’s transition to middle and high school and discussing possibilities for his future. The most significant people in Riley’s life were all there—including his parents, teachers, and relatives. “Maggie was there,” Ellen recalled. There was a similar meeting when he was a junior in high school. Again, Maggie Burke was there. And when Riley brought his prom date to Arvad’s restaurant in Waterbury for a pre-prom dinner, Maggie joined Riley’s mother at a nearby table to casually chaperone.

Ellen ticked off the ways Vermont Adaptive has shaped her son’s life. “He has blossomed as an athlete . . . and the friendships he has made . . . ,” she said, listing the names of some of Riley’s race teammates. “These kids have been racing together since the beginning. For someone like Chris—he’s not invited to birthday parties or sleepovers with other kids his age. This is where he has made his friendships.” 

Originally called the Vermont Handicap Ski Foundation, Vermont Adaptive was started by Laura Farrell in 1987 at Ascutney Mountain in southern Vermont. By 1991, the organization had expanded to Sugarbush, largely due to the efforts of Mike Murphy, the son of Sugarbush’s original general manager, Jack Murphy. A lifelong skier, Mike lost his leg in a motorcycle accident in 1977, taught himself to ski again, and went on to earn a silver medal at the World Championships in 1982. After spending time with the folks at Ascutney, Murphy introduced the idea to Sugarbush. The organization moved its southern program and headquarters to Pico Mountain in 1999, and added a third location, Bolton Valley, in 2008.

Statewide, Vermont Adaptive provides more than 3,000 adaptive adventures annually, to participants of any age, regardless of their ability to pay. Within two years of its inception, the organization started offering summer programming, as well: athletes are frequently taken to mountain biking trails in Warren and Waterbury, and cycling, canoeing, and kayaking outings are run out of the Burlington Waterfront Park, where the group is working to fund a permanent residence.

Erin Fernandez has served as executive director of Vermont Adaptive since 2001. Having grown up in the ski industry and earned her Professional Ski Instructors Association (PSIA) Alpine Level III certification shortly after college, Fernandez focused initially on professionalizing instruction at the organization. The PSIA structure for adaptive certification was still evolving, but Fernandez wanted Vermont Adaptive to be on the forefront. “It was a big paradigm shift for the organization,” she told me. And while PSIA certification for alpine skiing is fairly straightforward—Levels I, II, and III—it is not nearly so succinct in adaptive instruction. “To reach a Level III adaptive certification, an instructor must pass on all adaptive skills: blind guiding, monoski instruction, teaching skiers on the autism spectrum, etc.,” Fernandez explained. Her goal was to “be part of whatever the national movement is—the best training, or the best equipment. And we have done that.”

Each season, all 400 or so volunteers go through a rigorous in-house training that exposes them to all adaptive populations. Most volunteers choose to focus on one or two groups. Still, Fernandez proudly cited that she has probably ten volunteers at each location—Pico, Sugarbush, and Bolton Valley—who can teach at the highest level in all adaptive disciplines. Some of these are her full-time staff, which has grown from three to ten during her tenure. Fernandez has worked hard to ensure that she can pay a competitive wage and offer an attractive work environment so she can retain good employees. “Personally, I am pretty proud of that,” she said. “If I can’t surround myself with people who dream bigger than I do, and if I can’t have the best people, I can’t have the best organization.”

Vermont Adaptive offers professional instruction and guidance at the highest level, but the real magic is the sense of possibility the organization gives its athletes. “I can’t say enough wonderful things about them,” Ellen Riley said. “[Vermont Adaptive] has allowed us to do things as a family that we may not have been able to do. . . . Chris rock-climbs, he swims, he ice-skates, he wrestles.” The opportunities for athletes like Riley are plentiful.

This notion was echoed by Cioffi, who vividly remembers the day she met Norm Staunton at her first introduction to Vermont Adaptive at Mt. Ellen. “Norm took one look at me and said, ‘You are an athlete. You are strong. You got this.’ There was no mention of my disability. He was just full of possibility.” Staunton and Cioffi became good friends, and he has been a mentor to her in the organization, bringing her on as a race coach, showing her how to set the course, take an athlete through their free runs and course runs, and give feedback on their performance. “It’s the most exciting thing I do every weekend,” she added.

Cioffi brings a unique perspective to Vermont Adaptive, as a former able-bodied person who now uses a wheelchair and monoski, and serves as a volunteer and board member. “It’s easy to become victim to a lack of independence,” she told me. “Finding that, getting that back, that’s how you can enjoy life.”

For all that the organization offers its athletes at Mt. Ellen, the current physical space has limitations. While there are ramps for athletes to get in and out of the building, and an accessible restroom on the same floor, there is no elevator leading down to the rental shop or up to the Green Mountain Lounge. That means that when Cioffi, for example, wants to meet her friends upstairs in the lounge, “I have to wait until I can get carried up the stairs,” she said. “That’s hard for my stubborn, independent self.” The space is too small to allow room for service dogs to hang out, for equipment to be stored, or for participants with sensory issues to find a quiet spot. Phase two of Vermont Adaptive’s Home Sweet Home fundraising campaign aims to raise $4 million: $2 million to fund a building addition at Mt. Ellen and the location on Burlington’s waterfront, and another $2 million to build a permanent endowment. (Phase one funded their first adaptive facility and state headquarters at Pico Mountain.) The Mt. Ellen expansion will likely break ground in the spring of 2020, with an anticipated completion date that December. Cioffi and the other athletes are eager for the change. “It will be so nice to have the freedom to go wherever I want, to whatever floor I want,” Cioffi said.
Fernandez and Burke, too, get excited when talking about their new home at Mt. Ellen, and the possibilities it will present. Fernandez sees an opportunity to offer retreats in the summer, some sport-specific training camps, and maybe a day camp. And Burke, now the organization’s managing director of development and donor relations, hopes to host more groups from places like Zeno Mountain (a camp based in Lincoln, Vermont, that serves adults with disabilities) and Boston’s Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital. She also dreams of a paralympic program, building on the U.S. Olympic Committee Adaptive Race Camp at Mt. Ellen in 2016. Right now, many athletes at that level head west to train, to places like the National Sports Center for the Disabled in Park City, Utah.

Stephen Lawler of Burlington first skied with Vermont Adaptive when he was six years old, on a bi-ski tethered to volunteers. When Lawler was eleven, Danielle Hampton, the Vermont Adaptive race coach at the time, invited him to join the race team. In his sophomore year in high school, he became the first person in Vermont with a disability to race on a high school team, encouraged and supported by his Burlington High School coach Pavel Dvorak. Lawler earned a silver medal in the World Championships in downhill in 2013, and has gone to the Paralympics twice. He splits his training between winters in Winter

 Park and summers in Colorado Springs, with a heavy dose of international travel with the U.S. Paralympics Alpine Ski Team. “I love what I do,” Lawler told 

me. “Vermont Adaptive was a great start.”
Producing Paralympians, Special Olympians, and a volunteer corps that can instruct at the highest level, it is no wonder that Vermont Adaptive is regarded as a leader in the field. But what matters most to the staff, the volunteers, the athletes, and their families is the community Vermont Adaptive offers.

Both Fernandez and Burke spoke to the uniqueness of the program in the Mad River Valley, created by the fierce dedication of everyone involved. “It starts with Gordon in the parking lot, to Mopey [Dave Forward] making sure his lifties are dialed in on how to load a sit ski, to the food-and-beverage folks bringing us cookies, to marketing including us in their promotions, to Win coming to our fundraisers,” Burke said, referring to Win Smith, Sugarbush’s president and majority owner.

“I love the community,” she continued. “That feeling that when you walk into our office, you feel welcomed. Our participants and our volunteers . . . they may be coming from a place in their world where they are by themselves, but when they come to us, they are one of us.”

To learn more about Vermont Adaptive Ski & Sports at Mt. Ellen, visit vermontadaptive.org.


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