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Helping disabled skier at Winter Park kindles sense of accomplishment

Stephanie Miller
Sky-Hi Daily News
Philip Wojniak, 15, autistic, arvada winter park, Easy Way, monday
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The fresh air in your face. The big, fat flakes stuck on your eyelids. Your skis feel light and airy as they glide along the newly fallen snow.

But today isn’t about you. It’s about your student. And right now he’s making his way down Butch’s Breezeway without you because you decided to make some powder turns on the outer edges of Engeldive. Shoot!

“Slow down Philip! Wait for me!” says Kathy Ahlert, a volunteer for the National Sports Center for the Disabled. Thankfully, Ahlert has been skiing with Philip for four years and is familiar with his mannerisms. She also has a way better attention span than I do.

“OK, now follow my turns,” she says as Philip watches her and follows her tracks. Half way down they switch and Philip is the leader. We follow him as he cuts away from Butch’s and heads for Easy Way. Ahlert smiles.

“He always goes down Easy Way,” she said. “I’m trying to get him to ski all the way down Butch’s, but it’s not easy.”

As part of the Monday program at NSCD, a group of autistic children from Arvada come up each week for a day of skiing and snowboarding. I joined Ahlert for a morning lesson to get a feel for NSCD’s volunteer program, and to learn why so many volunteers return year after year.

For Ahlert, it’s the students. NSCD volunteers can decide how many days they want to teach “usually once every two weeks or so. Ahlert volunteers twice a week; once solely a Monday volunteer, she was switched to Thursdays this year but couldn’t give up her lessons with Philip. She now drives up Berthoud Pass twice a week to volunteer both days, and skis every Monday with her favorite student.

“He has improved a lot. Four years ago he could do nothing but snowplow,” she said. “Now he’s getting his parallel turns down, and he maneuvers really well.”

Philip, 15, moves easily down Easy Way ” a trail he’s obviously comfortable with ” as new snow pours down in thick, white layers. Bundled from head to toe, he’s not so sure about this new snow stuff. He’s also not sure why he can’t ski the same run over and over again.

But ski instructors know that in order for their students to improve, they need to be taken out of their comfort zone. Most students will eventually give in to this theory if they’re determined to take their skiing to the next level. Autistic children, however, aren’t like most students. They thrive on routine.

Ahlert’s goal for today is to get Philip to ski Butch’s without crossing over to Easy Way ” or to try a new trail altogether. Philip has other ideas.

“No not that way! Follow me, Philip “we’re going to do another run before lunch,” Ahlert says, as she coaxes him back to the Prospector Chairlift.

I gaze longingly at Engeldive, which looks so powdery and enticing. Perhaps Philip would like moguls? Perhaps not. We ski to the Prospector lift line and Ahlert starts giving a few cues.

“OK, wait for the next chair.”

We shuffle to the appropriate line, and Ahlert helps Philip sit down into the chair.

Philip’s verbal skills are minimal, but he knows a few sentences, like “Easy Way” and “Vail.” Ahlert explained to me that Philip is going on a ski trip to Vail next month with his family ” something he wouldn’t have been able to do without the help of NSCD and Ahlert.

“You have to have patience,” she admitted. “But we get as much out of it as the kids do. When you see them progress, you’re so happy for them.”

We do another run down Butch’s Breezeway, and this time I set myself up by the path that leads to Easy Way, determined to keep Philip from crossing over again. Ahlert and Philip are way on the other side of the run, but as soon as Philip notices where he is, he shoots over toward me; I plant my skis more firmly into the snow.

Jill Polito, another NSCD volunteer who helps coordinate the Monday program out of Arvada, also tries to keep Philip from entering the pathway. When Philip stops in front of us and asks, “Easy Way?” we shake our heads and explain that he needs to stay on Butch’s. This is met with loud protests, and even as I put myself in Philip’s way, he gives me a little push and glides over my skis. Teenagers. They think they know everything. Polito laughs.

“Oh well ” that didn’t work. Guess we’re going down Easy Way.”

As we get back on the Prospector chairlift again, Polito explains that her 16-year-old son, Nick, also has autism and is part of the Monday program. He has come a long way since he joined the NSCD eight years ago, she says.

“I think skiing is one of the best sports for these kids. It gives them a sense of freedom,” Polito said. “And in my experience, autistic kids have an amazing sense of balance.”

It is still snowing lightly, but my mind is no longer on the fresh turns I’m missing. Philip won that battle, but we were determined to win the next one. We developed a very complex strategy as we rode the chairlift: When we get off the lift, we’ll go left instead of right. Genius! Lunch, we decided, would also be used to our advantage.

“We’re going to take a different way down this time Philip ” and then we’ll get some lunch,” Ahlert says as we ski off the Prospector and gently coax Philip toward the edge of Vista Dome, a fairly steep trail that leads to Village Way, and eventually to the base. It was a completely different route for Philip, and even his thick, black neck gator and goggles couldn’t conceal the uncertainty in his eyes.

But Philip trusts Ahlert to get him down the mountain safely. After a few more words of encouragement, he follows her down the hill.

“All right, Philip!” shouts Polito as she skis behind us.

Philip, despite his anxieties, looks proud of his accomplishment. He is on new ground ” new territory. Not only does he ski down a steep, new run, he skis through a tunnel.

“Eisenhower?”

“No, it’s not the Eisenhower Tunnel Philip,” Polito says, laughing, as we ski through the tunnel that leads to Cranmer.

After Cranmer, we ski Parkway, despite Philip’s desire for Turnpike ” his usual route to the base. He doesn’t fall once, and he skis beautifully. Ahlert is proud of him when we arrive in front of the West Portal building.

I also can’t help but feel that sense of personal accomplishment creep up inside of me as I watch Philip take off his skis. This, I decide, was better than a powder day.

“High five Philip!” I say, and Philip knocks my hand. He quietly picks up his skis and walks back to the NSCD equipment room, as Ahlert looks back and gives me a quick smile.

” To reach Stephanie Miller, call (970) 887-3334, ext. 19601 or e-mail smiller@grandcountynews.com.


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