For more than 20 years the Adaptive Skier Program has been an integral part of the North American Vasa cross-country ski race. The program places developmentally disabled young adults on skis and allows them to challenge themselves to ski distances up to 10 Km. These physically and mentally challenged athletes cross the same finish line as the world-class and citizen Vasa skiers, with the same joy and relief at completing their races.
The Adaptive Skiers have a range of neurological and developmental disabilities including blindness and visual impairment, deafness, mental retardation and motor-skill deficiencies. Each year more than 20 Adaptive Skiers participate in the Vasa. The Adaptive Skiers are recognizable in their distinctive green jackets. Most are from the Traverse City area, but a group from Kalamazoo also skis in the event.
The association between the Vasa and the Adaptive Skier Program is unique among cross-country ski races in the United States. “I don’t know of any other major ski marathon that has the adaptive skiers on the same course with the able-bodied skiers,” noted Pete LaPlaca, President of the North American Vasa. “It’s inspiring for the citizen skiers to see the efforts put forth by the disabled skiers, and vice versa. It benefits both groups.”
Bob Eichenlaub, a teacher at Traverse Bay Area School District Adult Work Center, has been involved with the Adaptive Skier Program for 15 years. “It’s truly rewarding to see these skiers train and prepare for the Vasa, and push themselves to their physical limits on race day.” Each Adaptive Skier is accompanied on the course by an able bodied guide-skier, which is particularly important with the several blind skiers that participate each year.
The Adaptive Skiers have a full schedule on Vasa Day, starting with a breakfast sponsored by a local Kiwanis group, and then busing to the Vasa start at Timber Ridge RV and Recreation Resort. After the race, the skiers shower and then are bused to the Elks Lodge for lunch and an awards ceremony where each skier receives a medallion. “These skiers proudly wear their medals, and have a great feeling of accomplishment,” said Eichenlaub. “But, what really makes it a fun day for the guide skiers and me is seeing the Olympic-class smiles on their faces when they cross the finish line.”