Everyone Deserves a Turn

Image: Wasatch Adaptive Sports

Author: Natalie Taylor

Published Date: 02/02/2022

5 Minutes

Crisp air, peppered with pine, fills your lungs. Snow glides underfoot while turning down the slope as sunrays light the peaks with a gentle alpine glow. Time suspends as you float down the mountain.

This is what Peter Mandler hoped everyone could experience when he started Wasatch Adaptive Sports (WAS) in 1977. The visionary founder was a 26-year-old ski instructor at Snowbird. “After I taught my first lesson to a student with a developmental disability, I recognized a huge need,” he says. “At the time, there were few adaptive sports programs and they were very expensive. We wanted to give students who wouldn’t have the chance otherwise an opportunity to come up and recreate.”

Wasatch Adaptive Team and ski patrol with a sit down skier at Snowbird

He spoke with then-Mountain School Director Junior Bounous and Assistant Director Jerry Warren. They authorized the program and Mandler started teaching students and training ski instructors.

“From those humble roots, the program delivers life-changing experiences,” says Dave Fields, President and General Manager of Snowbird. “My predecessor, Bob Bonar, used to say that working with WAS is the best thing Snowbird does. He’s right. It’s so inspiring to see the difference this program makes in people’s lives.”

Based out of Snowbird, with a second office in Murray, Utah, WAS provides recreational services to children, adults and veterans with physical and mental disabilities. From rare diseases and paralysis to traumatic brain injuries and PTSD, students from all walks of life are afforded opportunities that help them get back into nature. Some were expert skiers before an accident and others have never been on skis before. “At the peak of their personal crisis, when they thought they might never experience the joy of being outside again, they can come up and play,” says Fields.

Wasatch Adaptive team member with a sit down skier at Snowbird

Using the latest state-of-the-art adaptive sports equipment, WAS has grown from only offering winter adaptive ski lessons to a year-long program that includes mountain biking and cycling along the Wasatch Front, paddle boarding and kayaking at Tibble Fork Reservoir and yoga. Winter activities have expanded to snowboarding, snowshoeing and indoor cycling.

Beyond the physical changes and limitations some might experience, financial and emotional stress oftentimes affect the entire family. “Some spouses have to quit their jobs to take care of their loved one, so they lose two incomes,” says Fields. 

Because of this, affordability is also key. “The costs are astronomical and insurance doesn’t pay much,” says Mandler. “My focus was to help people who simply couldn’t afford it get on the mountain.” Dick Bass, Snowbird co-founder and Bob Bonar, former President and General Manager, were huge supporters. “Dick Bass bought almost everything at our first fundraiser,” says Mandler.

Snowbird athlete Brodie Broderick skiing at Snowbird

Shortly after, San Francisco 49ers quarterback Steve Young spoke with Mandler. Young has friends whose children have rare diseases and disabilities and he wanted to get involved. While Young played in the NFL for 15 years, his commitment never wavered. Today, the annual Steve Young Ski Classic fundraising gala held at Snowbird helps WAS gather mission-critical funds. “He’s been involved for 36 years,” says Mandler. “He’s a Pro Football Hall of Fame quarterback and has stayed with us the entire time because he cares deeply about every student we serve and ensuring they have equal access to experience the power of recreation. So much of what we have been able to achieve is due to the Forever Young Foundation.”

Generous donations have enabled WAS to require no initial fee and provide full or partial scholarships for students or families to participate on a year-round basis. The programs build strength, stamina and self-esteem while enhancing the quality of life for all students. 

Wasatch Adaptive team member teaching young kid how to ski at Snowbird

2010 brought the inception of the WAS Veterans Program, in partnership with the George E. Wahlen Department of Veterans Affairs, providing outdoor recreational and social activities for veterans coping with military-related physical, cognitive and emotional difficulties.

The goal is to get veterans out of their homes and participating in activities that promote camaraderie, self-esteem and a connection to the outdoors. “We see people go from playing video games 18 hours a day to putting on ski boots and smiling. They get out with family and friends and become part of a community,” says Fields. All WAS Veterans Programs are available 100% on scholarship thanks to the generous support of donors.

In 2017, Elizabeth Jahp Kimball stepped in as Executive Director to help expand the program. “It was a strong culture to begin with and it’s become more magnetic as the community at large is getting more involved in helping WAS carry forth its mission to help our students stay active and achieve their goals,” she says. Kimball focuses on developing community, volunteer and fundraising programs.

“The benefits of recreation are many­—physical, mental or social. Our students often describe the feeling of moving down the trail as ‘freedom’ and we couldn’t agree more. Outdoor life is central to Utah and helping everyone experience it in an accessible and affordable way is central to our purpose as an organization.”

One Wasatch Adaptive team member sit skiing and another team memeber skiing at Snowbird

Instructors are trained on an ongoing basis and certified through the Professional Ski Instructors of America and American Association of Snowboard Instructors, providing the technical instruction of skiing and snowboarding according to the national standards with a focus on working with individuals with adaptive needs.  

The program emphasizes a learning culture and fostering a sense of independence. “Our instructors are very open-minded and ability-focused,” says Kimball. “No matter how a student shows up, we have the tools to meet them at their best.” For more information on WAS please visit wasatchadaptivesports.org.

About the Author:

Natalie Taylor is a freelance writer and author of the poetry chapbook Eden’s Edge. An all-around adventurer, she loves skiing, soaking in natural hot springs, teaching yoga, exploring the mountains and deserts in her backyard, writing poetry and growing heirloom tomatoes.

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