Remembering Hal O’Leary: NSCD founder considered pioneer of adaptive recreation
When Hal O’Leary, a ski instructor at Winter Park Resort, volunteered to give 23 children with amputations a one-time lesson, no one expected him to spend the next 50 years rethinking recreation and transforming the lives of disabled people.
The 94-year-old adaptive skiing pioneer died Thursday under the care of Denver Hospice. The former ski instructor went on to become one of the founders of the National Sports Center for the Disabled, a program that now serves more than 4,000 children and adults with disabilities each year.
Gigi Dominguez knew O’Leary for 45 years and worked with him for 30 of them. She remembered how that first ski lesson drove O’Leary to spend his life revolutionizing the ski industry and recreation as a whole.
“He started to see what adaptive recreation does for someone with a disability, seeing what it did for their confidence and physical ability,” Dominguez said. “Because of what he saw it did for people’s lives, the sky was the limit.”
Back in 1970, two decades before the Americans with Disabilities Act was signed into law, there were practically no recreation opportunities for people with disabilities. Everything from accessible parking to public acceptance stood in the way of the program O’Leary forged.
“His passion for it was unprecedented,” Dominguez said. “No matter how we were challenged — and we were challenged a lot.”
Kristin Winn also worked with O’Leary and recalled his ingenuity for getting people into the right ski equipment and how that revolutionized mindsets.
“Hal did a lot to turn people’s attitudes about disability, and people with disabilities, and the things they can’t do,” Winn said. “There’s not much they can’t do, especially when you adapt equipment to their needs.”
Beyond hiring a strong staff, O’Leary worked hard to establish reliable and enthusiastic volunteers as a way to expand the program. His attitude and charisma helped to build the foundation of the now 50-year-old NSCD.
“Hal was just an incredible person,” Winn said. “Funny, (he) had a real wit about him. He was able to make light of situations. It can be difficult to deal with disability, and he was always able to do it with a laugh and a joke and a smile.
“That was the most fundamental part of the program. It was about joy and fun and learning to make do with what you still have.”
Most of all, O’Leary always centered the individuals the program worked to serve.
“It was about them and helping their families,” Dominguez said. “All of us were the support team so that that person would be successful and always out front.”
O’Leary’s work went beyond Winter Park. He wrote three books about teaching adaptive skiing and traveled the world, helping to bring adaptive ski programs to more than 30 countries. His work expanded past skiing, adapting all sorts of recreation for people with disabilities like sailing.
O’Leary also coached the US Disabled Olympic Team and went on to be inducted into the Colorado Ski & Snowboard Hall of Fame, the US Ski Hall of Fame and the US Disabled Ski Hall of Fame, along with winning a number of awards.
Along with Kathy Gingery, O’Leary also founded the Shining Stars Foundation in 2001. The nonprofit provides year-round recreation programs to children facing long-term pediatric cancer treatment and their families.
O’Leary estimated in 2017 that he had personally worked with over 20,000 people during the program’s 47 years. A number of those folks have reached out to Dominguez to share stories of O’Leary saving their lives and their families’ lives through his work.
“The skiing and adaptive recreation are just the tool,” Dominguez said. “The impact on their lives is incredible.”
Beyond his work for adaptive recreation, O’Leary was a lover of the arts, theater and opera. He was also an enthusiastic traveler, an incredible gardener and a fabulous cook, according to Dominguez.
O’Leary is remembered for devoting his life to improving the lives of other people.
“Of all the people I have known, I think Hal is the most special human being I’ve ever had the pleasure of working with,” Winn said. “I think everyone who has ever come in contact with him feels the same way about him.”
He is survived by siblings Herb O’Leary, Marie Charters and her husband Wayne, Phillip O’Leary and his wife Vonda, sister-in-law Mabel O’Leary, brother-in-law Max Peterson, and several nieces and nephews.
A celebration of life will be held later this summer in Winter Park. In lieu of flowers, donations to NSCD or the Shining Stars Foundation are encouraged.
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