With the Winter Paralympics games in full swing, adaptive sports are gaining more attention — not only in the U.S., but internationally.
Sochi Russian TV personality Sergey Belogolovtseva and his wife Natalia have seen their own Olympic-sized dream to use alpine skiing as a tool to better the lives of children with disabilities become a reality.
The Belogolovtseva’s new nonprofit group “Dream Ski” has linked with Colorado’s National Sports Center for the Disabled of Winter Park to gain insight and knowledge.
The parents of three adult sons, one with cerebral palsy, Natalia and Sergey have witnessed firsthand the daily struggles of Russian children with disabilities and their families. Advocating for the rights of their children to attend public school, receive ongoing appropriate medical treatment, and acceptance into sports clubs, the workplace, and society are everyday realities for Russians with disabilities — realities of American parents of children with disabilities a quarter-century ago.
Therapeutic recreation, a concept not currently supported in Russian culture, is the basis for Belogolovtseva’s idea. The practice uses sport to meet physical, cognitive, social and emotional goals, allowing participants to acquire life skills needed to succeed in their personal, professional and academic endeavors.
Known internationally as an authority on therapeutic-based adapted sports and recreation, NSCD was contacted to provide intensive training needed by Russian ski instructors to support Dream Ski activities.
Due the shared mission of unlocking human potential, NSCD readily accepted the offer to make a difference in the lives of Russian children.
Quick research revealed that Moscow has neither mountains nor copious amounts of snowfall, but supports cold temperatures and five inner city ski centers with snowmaking machines. Adaptive ski equipment, unavailable in Russia, was ordered from U.S. companies. Insights on diplomacy, culture, and collaboration were sought from the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, and travel plans were finalized for instructor training and mentored teaching sessions.
Sport is often said to be a common language among differing nations. Upon meeting the instructors sent to the training from the five unassociated Moscow ski centers, it was obvious this was true. The group shared the genuine desire to help children in need and to be a part of cultural change in Russia.
The Russian instructors were eager and receptive during classroom and on-snow sessions. They showed a desire to know and try everything presented regarding instruction for skiers with blindness, instruction for those diagnoses who require the use of crutches or walkers off or on the slopes, and those with intellectual challenges. The Russian instructors enhanced the learning experience for all; Olga, a credentialed medical doctor who cannot find work, helped translate medical terminology and diagnosis information to increase understanding among the instructors; Alexi, a ski coach and trainer helped instructors to understand the value of allowing participants with disabilities to learn at their own pace without over-service by the instructor.
Parents of children with disabilities must possess a certain amount of faith to allow their child to engage in a sport like skiing, especially when the activity is directed by a foreigner who does not speak the same language.
Individual meetings with each family to learn about the child were essential to the success of the project, as well as understanding the parents’ expectations and fears, sharing information about the planned outcomes of the activity and building rapport with the instructional team. Maxim’s grandmother explained she felt her teenaged grandson was spiraling downward, and she was desperate to find a way to help him decrease his isolation, increase his confidence, and enhance his health and physical wellbeing.
She expressed her concern that there is no support available to help Maxim overcome the present challenges in his life.
All emotions including excitement, trepidation, impatience and joy consumed participants, parents, and Russian instructors during ski activities indoors and on the slopes. Play as a basis for learning helped keep the atmosphere light and fun while the younger children acquired balance and movement skills.
Independent decisions were respected and trial periods of sliding without adapted equipment, but with instructor hands-on assistance were granted within safety parameters. Discussions led to adapted ski equipment such as outriggers, which are forearm crutches affixed to ski tips used to enhance balance and turning ability, allowing for greater success and independence while skiing.
Word of NSCD’s presence and work in Moscow spread through the rehabilitation community and specialists visited the ski center to personally observe the successes occurring on the slopes. Presentations were given to rehabilitators, and the new concept of sport as a therapeutic modality was introduced and accepted with interest.
As the equipment was gathered after the final skier departed the slope on the last day of the NSCD-supported program, the air was filled with hope and gratitude from the children with disabilities and their parents. Maxim’s grandmother cried with joy saying that she had never seen Maxim so enthused, engaged and interested in life. She said there is a future for the grandson she loves.
Four Russian ski instructors who attended the Moscow NSCD training will travel this spring to NSCD for an additional three weeks and ten days of training and teaching at NSCD’s Mountain Program in Winter Park. Five Russian families will attend ski lessons at NSCD this season as a continuation of their quest to gain the life benefits offered through therapeutic recreation.
The 2014 Paralympics in Sochi are sure to be of interest for people with disabilities in Russia and an additional support for cultural change in that country. Maybe we will see Maxim on the podium as a Paralympic athlete in the 2018 Games in South Korea.
Beth Fox is Operations Director at NSCD, is a Colorado state licensed educator and examiner for PSIA-RM (Professional Ski Instructors of America – Rocky Mountain Division), sits on the Education Advisory Council for PSIA National, and is a National Disabled Ski Hall of Fame inductee. For more information about NSCD visit, www.nscd.org.