VISAS Nordic sit ski

 This week I want to set aside all level of politics and even my passion for the path to a more just and sustainable world, and—for this one post—tell a few stories about what sustains me.

I have, for the past twenty years, been involved as an instructor in what was once the Vancouver Island Skiing for the Disabled Society and has recently been renamed the Vancouver Island Society for Adaptive Snowsports Association (VISAS). Established on Mt Washington in 1992, VISAS was nurtured and guided by the dream of the legendary Comox Valley sports advocate Herb Bradley who believed that making skiing available to people who couldn’t ski due to physical or cognitive challenges could be a very delightful and even transformative experience–people who would otherwise never know the exhilarating body-joy of drifting/dancing down the mountain; free like a bird playing in a rising current of air.

VISAS today is an organization of over ninety volunteer instructors who adapt the teaching methodologies of the Canadian Ski Instructors Alliance to the particular needs and abilities of people with an incredible array of physical and cognitive challenges including amputees, blind, disabling diseases like MS and arthritis, as well as cognitive challenges like autism, attention/memory loss, etc. In addition to providing instructors/facilitators, VISAS provides clients with the free use of adaptive equipment like sit skis (skis on a seat) and discounted lift tickets. Ten years ago VISAS opened a Nordic division to assist those who need assistance in getting out xc skiing.

But I didn’t set out to write about VISAS the society and its services. Having introduced VISAS and its mission, what I want to share today is some of experiences that have made my twenty years with adaptive snowsports so rewarding.

One of the amazing things about Herb Bradley was that everyone who became an instructor or volunteered with the association in any capacity felt they had a direct personal connection to the association and to Herb. So the first experiences that I would like to share are, of course, about Herb Bradley.

I had a rather special relation with Herb because not only was I an instructor with the program, my wife, Nancy, was a student/client that learned to love skiing in the bi-ski—a two ski, easier to use, especially turn, than the single-skied sitski. Much as Herb had a special connection with the instructors, Herb held a very special place in his heart for everyone of the clients/students that came to VISAS. On the very first day that my wife tried out a bi-ski, she—and I—learned an important lesson about how utterly aware of the “students” needs Herb was. This particular day was a deeply moving day because Nancy was returning for the first time to the ski slopes after she had, at one time, given up the idea that she would ever ski again—that she and I would, together, know the joy of skiing together. It just so happened that Herb had several new instructors who needed to learn more about taking a person out in the bi-ski for the first time. As was his style, Herb, waited in the wings, watching and correcting instructors when they missed something. There were four new instructors with us. Nancy was new to sit skiing and they were new to instructing an inexperienced sit skier. A little over half way through the day, Herb suddenly called a halt to the instruction saying that was enough instruction and the instructors could have a free ski for the rest of the day. Herb took over and with minimal instruction guided Nancy in the small incremental steps needed to master the art of the sit ski turn. They had a wonderful hour after the other instructors left just sampling the various techniques of ski skiing and making long curved turns then a shorter, tighter one across the hill, then linking a few short turns with a longer one. At the end of the day Nancy was hooked on sit skiing—as was I. This meant that we could once again ski together, something that meant a great deal to me as I can to this day remember the sadness when we both recognized that the illness had taken that joy from us. But here is the point of this story: on the way down the hill that evening Nancy turned to me in the car and said, “you know, the thing that amazed me today was not just the idea that we might well ski together again, but—you know—I think Herb Bradley is some kind of mind reader. At the very moment that I thought, NO! I don’t want any more instruction. That was the exact moment when Herb called a halt to the lesson with the other instructors—like he was reading my mind!”

One other story about Herb before I move on to a few other VISAS experiences that certainly turn my crank.

One day I was having a cup of coffee with Herb and we were talking about the program etc. Something I said about the organization or organizations or my frustrating experience on Comox Council tweaked a response from Herb that I will never forget and have never stopped sharing. “You know, Norm”—he said in his easy to recognize sharing a perspective voice, though I felt at the time and am even more convinced today that he was being very specific that this information was important for me to hear“ our disabled ski society exits for two—he held up two fingers emphatically—for two—he repeated, equal purposes. One”– he bent one finger as in counting__”is to give people with a disabling limitation a chance to know a kind of body joy that would not otherwise be available to them” (reinstating his two finger—two points gesture) “the other Equal purpose of the organization is to give people who do not have a visible disability a chance to find expression for the goodness that is in them that they might not otherwise see.” Herb was silent for a moment. He looked me in the eye with a look that said, I really want you to get this—this is important!. “Two equal—inseparable purposes!” “This organization would be on its, inevitable, way to failure if it ever forgets that it is as much about bringing out the best in volunteers as it is in proving services to the disabled.” I have never forgotten and I have seen organizations fail over and over because they were under the misguided understanding that volunteers were there to milked to provide services to others or community, etc. Then there was the time I was alone with Herb in the disabled ski room. I took advantage of the moment to thank Herb for his efforts and leadership in guiding such a wonderful organization. To which, Herb, quickly and convincingly retorted, “You know, Norm, successful organizations—all successful organizations—are made of two inseparable, complimentary things—good leaders AND good followers. Everyday you come up for your duty day you and all the other volunteers are making this organization what it is just as much as I am in mucking around with this leadership thing.” It is another point I have never forgotten and another point on which I have seen so many organizations fail or fall short.

Over that past twenty years with VISAS, I have acquired quite the bag of stories but here are a few that I would like to share with you this week. BTW names and dates are changed to protect privacy.

It’s all about choice–1

One story some of you have heard and some not. A personal experience with VISAS that which moves me deeply.

Once, some time ago, while I was still doing VISAS downhill, I had a young student; a beautiful 11 year old girl with multiple challenges. She was in a wheelchair and had considerable communication challenges. We had her out in a sit ski on the Whiskey Jack chair. It was a slow morning with three instructors taking turns steering the sit ski down the hill. It would likely have been a “good” but short day with a good feeling about getting her out for as long as she was comfortable—10am- 12 noon likely. In the middle of a quiet but enjoyable run down one of the easier runs one member of our team remembered the workshop we had attended a month earlier where emphasis was placed on the idea of choice: all choice, any choice– any sense that the “student” is in charge of their experience is to be paramount—was the overwhelming theme of the workshop. And it had kind of slipped our thought or we weren’t seeing opportunity for choices when the student could not, very obviously could not, make much of a choice all folded into the sit ski.

We hadn’t absorbed the workshop well enough to realize that the choice of the right or left beginners run is a real choice for someone who has few choices. But one of us did remember—about half way down what would have been one of the last runs of the day he asked;”Carly, (for our purposes) which run do you want to go down”. Carly, smiled brightly and pointed left. We went left. Then–THEN she did something we hadn’t expected. WITHOUT being asked Carly held her hand above the sit ski covering and pointed right. We went right. Carly pointed left and right and left/ left and hard right and soon the sit ski was rhythmically dancing down the slope AND, Carly who usually sat quietly in the being skied sit ski, was laughing and giggling and pointing left then right and around a bump and down the hill and indeed if you stood aside and looked on—it was a dance and the giggling became profound and it wasn’t just Carly. We, all of us, were doing this left then hard right and short turns and long carved turns and giggling—the instructors were giggling and laughing with such joy such infectious joy from the simple fact of offering a choice to someone who obviously longed to choose when it was all too often chosen for her. I have always believed Herb Bradley’s idea that the joy of skiing could positively impact the life of those who need a hand to get out skiing. But I had never understood it so powerfully down in my gut as I did that day with Carly.


It’s all about choice–2

A couple of years ago I had a young (12 year old) xc ski student who had been with a school group but was not doing well. He didn’t want to go with the class and he didn’t want to stay in the lodge and he did not want to go separately. In desperation I was asked if there was any chance that the VISAS training might help in inducing some—however small—appreciation of xc skiing in Seth (for our purposes). I tried everything I could think of. No beginning task, no matter how small, was small enough to try. No game was interesting. No promised bribe was interesting enough to induce Seth to even slide his ski forward. Yikes! What to do. Well, what about snowshoeing? I actually convinced Seth to try on the snowshoes and, to my wonderment, he tried a few steps and further to my wonderment he kind of liked it! After walking up and down in front of the lodge I convinced Seth that he was having enough fun to try a snowshoe trail. We made it 50 metres down the trail before Seth stopped resolutely looked around and commented favorably on the beauty around him. Another 20 metres and he stopped resolutely. He was bored and the signs of emotional struggle were clearly appearing. He looked at me distrustfully and asked defiantly, “Can I go that way?” he asked—the defiance seething to the surface. “Yes,” I replied, nonchalantly, but worried about where this conversation was headed—he was pointing out across tree studded, untracked territory. He plunged ahead into the openings between the trees. “Can I go that way?” he asked. “Yes,” though I felt he was testing me, looking for a no to be resisted. “Can I go that way?” “Yes, but it will be difficult.” “And that way?”—“Yes.” Finally we came to a very steep bank leading up to one of the xc trails. “Can I go that way?” I could tell that he was aware that what he was asking was nearly impossible. “Yes, you are allowed to try to go that way, but it will be difficult and you may not make it.”—It was impossible! He tried. And he tried. And, amazingly, he didn’t get frustrated. He kept trying. Finally he turned to me and said, humbly, “I don’t think I can make it up there!” So we retraced our tracks. Back at the lodge, as we were handing back the rental snowshoes, Seth turned to me and said—in a confidential voice—“You know what I like about snowshoes?” “No.” I was keenly interested in what he liked about the snowshoes that obviously did not apply to the skis. “You don’t have to stay in the tracks with snowshoes!” Wow, the whole thing about resisting the xc skiing was Seth was tired of all the rules, all the tracks, he wanted to be free from tracks. He wanted to explore his world his way. Seth came back two more times. On the third day we went skiing together, in the tracks. We had a great day!

Too much of a good thing

Something like five years ago I “taught” a most precious eleven-year-old boy one day a week for three weeks. Jim—I’ll call him for confidential purposes. Jim had problems with his spine from a congenital condition call Spina bifida. I was teaching him xc skiing while his class was up the hill for a group lesson because the Spina bifida had greatly restricted his motion and affected his endurance. Jim was a very likeable young man. I was greatly inspired by how unquestioningly he applied himself to learning the basic techniques of xc skiing—though he clearly would not keep up with the class—a perception that didn’t seem to trouble Jim. On the final day of lessons for his class, I felt an urgent need to introduce Jim to the elements of the snowplow turn/stop–mostly because he was learning classic xc skiing well enough that he might come again to try xc skiing with his family AND he would need to know the elements of stopping and turning in order to do even the most basic runs like “The Ponds.” So…after some disappointing attempts to teach the snowplow on our usual training slope, I took Jim to the gentlest slope I could find. And, still, the snowplow turn evaded him. He just didn’t have the muscle structure to hold the edge that would bring his skis around. I tried and tried. I tried everything I could think of. Teaching the snowplow became much more important to me than learning the snowplow was to Jim. I tried holding him up as we very slowly descended the gentle slope so he could concentrate on the skis rather than the balance. And every time we didn’t quite make it. I continued to encourage Jim with the aspects of the turn he was learning. I had to. It was Bradley’s clear emphasis—always encourage; always note what works, ALWAYS!! Remember that your first job is to ensure your student has a good day and feels confident about his learning—Bradley had drilled us over and over. And I was doing as Bradley instructed and as my heart felt was right. Jim needed to feel good about his learning and confident about learning more. Each time he fell, I encouraged him with notes on things he had done well. Next time…Finally–as the time for the last lesson was running out—Jim fell again and I began again with the observations on what he had done right. Next time… Jim, laying on the snow looked me in the eye, “Norm,” he said smiling most magnanimously, most warmly, most understandingly, “It’s OK, Norm, I have a disability that limits what I can do. You are a wonderful teacher, but there are some things I just can’t do with this disability. But I have really enjoyed these ski lessons.” “It’s OK, Norm…” he had read right through my anxiety and accepted that and STILL was happy with himself and even with me! Sometimes eleven-year-olds can be such great teachers!

It’s about expectations 1

One day while I was teaching downhill skiing, I was assigned a young boy about 12+ years old who had been diagnosed with attention deficit and maybe something else. This day with me was his first day with the program. I was going through the standard assessment of the student when his father called me aside confidentially. Almost whispering he informed me that Darin was a slow learner. That he didn’t do well at school and the future didn’t look bright for him but it would be wonderful if Darin could learn to ski well enough to enjoy family outings at the ski hill. “But”, he lowered his voice and spoke more earnestly. “But, Darin learns very slowly. You have to be carefully about encouraging him to have too high of expectations for himself and come away disappointed.” Wow! Not exactly an auspicious start to lessons. The amazing thing is– I am telling you the absolute truth: three years later Darin was on the VISAS race team and doing very well. I remember so clearly the third time I had Darin for a student and I suggested we try skiing down through some moguls (bumps). “You think, I can do that?” he said, the fire boiling in his eye!

It’s about expectations 2

One day at the VISAS downhill ski room, I was sitting around waiting for an assignment when an instructor from the ski school came by to ask if someone would, please, come help by taking on a ski school beginners student that was having so much trouble with the most basics that he was limiting the learning experience for other students. I got the job. Out on the flats I meet my new student, Jane (10 yrs old) and her father. I started with a what I felt was a confidence building task. “Let’s try sliding one ski forward just a little, then rest that one and slide the next one forward. The snow was perfectly flat so I thought that would make a good start at confidence building. Jane tried it and immediately crossed her skis. She tried to stand up and fell over. She was very unhappy. Her father didn’t look much happier. “I don’t know what is wrong with her,” he whispered under his breath. Jane was on the snow and on the verge of tears. I had an inspiration or lucky guess. I went up to the father and explained that I was the instructor for the morning and that this was his chance to get in some great skiing and I would give Jane a private lesson at no additional cost to him(They didn’t come to us through VISAS). He looked sad and happy and a bit reluctantly left to go skiing. I turned to Jane. Jane cried. “I’ll never ski. My father is going to be so unhappy with me. I can’t do anything.” Tears. Well, let’s see. I slipped into Bradley mode and found sometime positive to point to. I held her hand and she made a step without falling. I let go of her hand and she made a step without falling. She made two, three steps without falling. Not wanting to lose the growingly positive self image, I held Jane’s hand and we walked over to the very, very gently sloped handle bar tow hill. I held her hand and we skied down to the bottom of the handle bar tow–`100’—without falling. Jane grabbed the handle and rode to the top on her own. A bit of a rough landing at the top but the ski down and ride up was too good an experience to be spoiled by a bit of a struggle at the off ramp. I taught her to snow plow. She snowplowed down to the bottom of the lift –without falling. I suggested that few Olympians had taken to the handle bar tow so adroitly. We skied and laughed and raced and the end of the day came too soon and Jane’s father came by at the end of the day and was shocked and delighted with Jane and Jane was smiling and hugged her father and asked if he knew when they were going to hold the next Olympics—expectantly.

Sometimes you get so much more than you deserve

I tell you this story somewhat hesitantly and embarrassedly because it so over states the case but I assure you this did happen and I have only changed the names to protect identities.

I think it was eight years ago now. I had an elderly student for a whole week(five days). My “student” Trisha was brought to the Raven (xc)Lodge by her daughter Molly. They lived on the island but a long ways away. Trisha’s daughter is my age. She brought her mother to VISAS Nordic for a week because she had been a there a year earlier and her mother, who was descending into Alzheimer’s, had had a most enjoyable time. The fresh air and exercise had proven somewhat rejuvenating for Trisha. Trisha and Molly were staying on the mountain in a kind of respite together. Molly told me that the joy of seeing her mother happy and doing better was better for her than a respite separate from Trisha. Everyday for five days Trisha and I went out skiing on the Nordic trails. The weather cooperated. We had a delightful time. Sometimes testing the limits of Trisha’s endurance. We talked and skied and talked and shared stories. Trisha told me of her fears of “being a burden.” Molly skied on her own but met us for lunch every day and was always there to pick Trisha up and head back to their rental accommodation on the mountain.

On Friday, the last day of their stay, Molly asked me if I would stay and have dinner with them in the Nordic lodge. I usually wouldn’t but Molly clearly want to both end the week on a high note and to, perhaps, linger on basking in the relaxation and joy that she and her mother were feeling at such a relaxing week. I had the feeling –no Molly told me directly one lunch hour—that things were not going so well at home; that she wondered how much longer she could keep Trisha at home. “But,” she smiled, a tear welling in her eye, “ this has been a good—a very good week! I am so happy for this relaxed time with my mother.” And reaching across the table, she took my hand, looked me in the eye and said, “ You know, sometimes this week, I thought you were an angel.”  Holy Hannahs, I have been called many things but never that! And it was not me that Molly was responding to. But it was the mountain, and the air and VISAS and the exercise and fresh air, but given all that, clearly the whole package is powerful medicine, indeed!


Finally, a simple story with a lot of meaning. Many, many years ago; before there was a VISAS Nordic or even a Raven Lodge, I had a xc “student” assigned to me at the VISAS downhill. At that time I was the only instructor who had xc gear on the hill and was very occasionally assigned a day of Nordic skiing with a student who specifically asked for xc skiing. This particular student, fifty years old, Jack, had had a severe stroke and had only partially recovered the use of his left leg. Jack was a generous, agreeable and wonderful man. You knew that from the moment you were introduced to him. It wasn’t easy for Jack to xc ski with his partially recovered leg but he was into it. We skied and rested and skied on. Jack tired easily. And sometimes Jack got confused, a remnant of the stroke. He would stop, look around and look at me and say, “Where are we?” as though he could almost but not quite bring his mind around to where he was and why he was there. Then after a short explanation and reassurances, Jack would be up and ready to go on.

We didn’t go far. A kilometer, at most. Jack stopped. Exhausted. “This is wonderful, but it is far enough. I think we better head back after I get rested.” Jack fell silent, meditative. He was looking to the distant mountains and the trail ahead and the snowy trees and hearing the absorbing silence/peace. Jack drew in a long, thoughtful breath and looking at me he exclaimed. “This is fantastic! He talked about the snow and the trail and the mountain and the silence and then he said, “and you know I never thought I would ever get to do this again but here I am and even this little bit we have skied today is a huge thing for me. It’s like being given your life back but this time you know how short and vulnerable and utterly beautiful life is. You know, Norm, what VISAS does is absolutely wonderful beyond anything I can tell you. What a beautiful day. And I am here to experience it. You know, that guy who was so caught up in the pressures of his job that he had no idea of what he was missing. That guy; that guy that I was, I wouldn’t trade places with him, not even if I got my full health back with the deal. For me to come here and look over these mountains and feel this snow and be here is a treasure I wouldn’t trade away for anything. And what you and the other instructors do in helping us to share in the joy of skiing and being in this place is…well it’s just fantastic.”

If you or anyone you know would benefit from the VISAS efforts: