Founder of NSCD competition program leaves long legacy as coach, captain, adventurist
The founder of the competition program at the National Sports Center for the Disabled was known for his gruff exterior, adventurous spirit and warm heart that led to a long career coaching athletes with disabilities.
Paul DiBello died on April 29 in Aurora of COVID-19. He was 69 years old and left behind a life full of adventure and love for the outdoors, along with his legacy at the NSCD.
Over 6 feet tall, DiBello could be intimidating with his wild beard and rough disposition. Behind that exterior, though, was a passionate man who wanted to share his joy with others, which is why his work at the NSCD mattered so much to him.
“He was very gruff, kind of a bear,” said his daughter, Heidi Mahoney. “But he had a heart of gold and he just wanted the best out of everyone.”
DiBello spent his life pushing himself to the limit as an outdoorsman. During an ice climbing expedition on Mount Katahdin in Maine, frostbite took a thumb, part of a finger, the tip of his nose and both feet.
“I saw what it did to his body, but it sure as hell didn’t do anything to his spirit,” said Roanne Kuenzler, who competed with DiBello and knew him for 36 years. “If anything, it made him stronger.”
DiBello, who was 23 at the time, and five other men were part of a climbing party in 1974 when a sudden storm trapped them on a ledge overnight in sub-zero temperatures with wind gusts over 100 mph.
DiBello climbed off the cliff the next morning, unable to see from the cold and with legs that felt like wooden stumps. He crawled for several hours before finding a ranger’s cabin.
All but one man, a close friend to DiBello, survived the brutal night. DiBello was hospitalized for almost a year, but he was back to climbing and skiing a little while later.
“I think after his accident he just wanted to get back to achieving things and not let his handicap define him,” Mahony said. “He had a drive and a passion.”
On the snow
DiBello began skiing competitively and won gold in three World Disabled Ski Championships. He collected countless medals in national and international alpine competitions. As a talented skier, he proved disability had nothing to do with skill.
“At one point, the judges did not believe he was actually handicapped and made him prove it,” Mahony recalled.
In 1984, DiBello took that talent to the National Sports Center for the Disabled where he developed and directed the competition program. There he went on to train elite disabled skiers for regional, national and international competition.
“I think the key thing about Paul was his attitude about athletes with disabilities — that they shouldn’t be coddled and should be treated just like athletes who didn’t have a disability,” Kuenzler said. “He felt so strongly about that because that was how he wanted to be treated.”
The NSCD, in partnership with Winter Park Resort, hosted the World Disabled Ski Championship in 1990 under DiBello’s direction. The international competition, the first of its kind to be hosted in the US, saw nearly 200 elite skiers from almost 20 countries.
Over his 20 years with the NSCD, DiBello’s athletes won more medals than any other disabled team in the world over the same stretch of time. But it wasn’t only elite athletes he coached.
“He’s changed a lot of people’s lives,” Kuenzler said. “Paul changed the lives of elite skiers, but he also coached people with disabilities who would never be on a US disabled ski team and probably never win a race. He cared as much about them as the elite skiers.”
To DiBello, it wasn’t about the skill level of the athlete, but their attitude.
“It didn’t matter what they achieved or what level they got to, just that they had to have that desire to improve,” Kuenzler said.
On the lake
John Weiland worked for the NSCD and knew DiBello for over 30 years. One day after the 1990 World Disabled Championships, DiBello called Weiland up to go sailing on Lake Granby.
“We never stopped,” Weiland said.
DiBello’s prosthetic feet, when wet, made a squishing noise as he walked around his boat. This earned him the nickname Captain Spongefoot. Sailing was another passion for DiBello, who started a rental company with Weiland as his right hand man.
Weiland described a Fourth of July weekend where no other boat was on the lake — mostly because of 50 mph winds — but DiBello was sailing through the weather. Weiland figured that if his friend was having that much fun, they were probably safe.
“You should have seen him as a sailor,” Kuenzler added. “When a storm came, the other boats would go to the shore, but Paul would go right toward that wind.”
DiBello went on to start a sailing program on Lake Granby for people with disabilities and then a rock-climbing program for individuals with visual impairment.
Aside from skiing and sailing, DiBello was also passionate about cooking. In 1995, he started the Captain Spongefoot Trading Company, selling award winning sauces for buffalo wings and other food.
“If you’ve had ‘killer’ chicken wings in Grand County, Denver, Idaho Springs or Golden, they were likely sauced with Paul’s sauce,” Weiland said.
Weiland said DiBello always played with the limits of hot sauce. DiBello would often experiment to see just how spicy he could get his sauce and how much his unlucky tasters could stand.
Pushing the limit — whether in food or sport — was how DiBello spent his life, even as life pushed back.
DiBello went on to survive numerous health problems, including broken bones, surgeries, a ruptured appendix that resulted in sepsis, throat cancer and then serious health issues resulting from treatment.
“In the end he was a lucky man and was looking forward with fairly frequent optimism — a big thing for the grumpy old bear we all knew and loved — until the virus,” Kuenzler said.
His many friends, athletes and family continue to mourn him and his loss. Some who knew DiBello are working to nominate him for the Paralympic Hall of Fame.
A man who proved time and time again to be a survivor, DiBello spent his life pushing himself to the limit and sharing that ambition with other disabled athletes.
DiBello is survived by his daughter, two granddaughters and three siblings along with his nieces and nephews. His family and friends hope to hold a memorial for him after the pandemic has passed.
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