Maine Adaptive Sports and Recreation

Creating access for athletes on the slopes and beyond

Whether we are skiing through the first rays of the morning sun while making lazy turns on Sunday River’s Dream Maker trail, or kayaking off the coast of Harpswell, we need a certain amount of strength and coordination to navigate Maine’s woods and waters. It is easy to take our bodies’ abilities for granted— until we realize that other people face limitations that make these experiences less accessible. Some individuals begin life being differently-abled, due to issues like autism or cerebral palsy, while others abruptly lose limbs, including young adults in military combat. Still others develop problems with their vision, movement, or thinking due to debilitating diseases like Parkinson’s. For the past 35 years, Maine Adaptive Sports and Recreation has helped more than 12,000 athletes overcome these challenges so that they can experience the healing freedom of the great outdoors.

Dr. Omar “Chip” Crothers founded Maine Adaptive in 1982 with the help of three colleagues. A Portland-based orthopedic surgeon, Crothers saw a patient of his skiing at Sunday River in Newry. Despite having cerebral palsy, she appeared to be maneuvering the slopes with grace. Crothers realized that this physical activity was helping her and wanted others to have the same experience. He contacted Leslie B. Otten, founder of American Skiing Company, the former operator of Sunday River, and Otten agreed to provide this opportunity at the mountain. Collaborating with cofounders Charlie Roscoe of Yarmouth and Charlie Stevens of Cape Elizabeth, they built the program that was first known as Maine Handicapped Skiing. The organization began with eight participants, two volunteers, and one part-time staff member at Sunday River’s South Ridge. They changed the name to Maine Adaptive Sports and Recreation in 2012, reflecting the fact that it now offers activities across the state and throughout the seasons—from summer canoeing at Range Pond in Poland to autumn rock climbing at Salt Pump Climbing Co. in Scarborough.

“The idea is that people with disabilities can benefit socially and physically by exposure to sports,” says Barbara Schneider, a ski instructor and former attorney, who has been the executive director of Maine Adaptive since October 2015. “We try to understand what we have to do to tailor both equipment and the instructional process to the people who recreate with us.” Maine Adaptive currently operates out of its own facility at Sunday River, but still relies on the financial support of Sunday River. The program now features five different winter sports—alpine skiing, alpine racing, Nordic skiing, snowboarding, and snowshoeing—at seven winter locations, from Sugarloaf in Carrabassett Valley to Pineland Farms in New Gloucester.

Maine Adaptive athletes may be as young as four, and there is no upper age limit. Younger

participants are often afflicted with genetic problems that affect their ability to move or see well, while older skiers may have had strokes or accidents causing incomplete spinal cord injuries. “It’s really nice to see that intergenerational activity between young kids coming to ski and older people, some of them returning to a sport that they had done before,” says Schneider. Maine Adaptive also has a program, Veterans No Boundaries, for veterans and active duty military personnel with disabilities.

Maine Adaptive is made possible through the work of more than 400 highly trained volunteers, many of whom have been there for decades. Volunteers range from retirees to students at Gould Academy in Bethel and the University of New England in Biddeford. Each volunteer receives background information on disabilities, how they may impact movement patterns in a sport, and how people with disabilities are affected by changes in temperature. “We are very committed to making sure all our instructors have the skills they need in all the sports,” says Schneider. Maine Adaptive sets up courses to get people certified by the American Canoe Association, sends people through wilderness first aid classes, and provides scholarships so that volunteers can do Professional Ski Instructors of America certification exams and trainings. “That’s very important, and it shows, because the quality of our instruction is very good,” says Schneider.

Maine Adaptive participants often require specialized equipment, especially in skiing. This depends upon their levels of ability, strength, balance, and spatial orientation and whether they have use of all four limbs. Some skiers simply need modified poles and close assistance from a volunteer. Other skiers who have more limited use of their legs may use an adaptive monoski, which features a bucket-like seat and shock absorbers attached to a single ski, along with special poles to help with balance and support. The device can cost between $5,000 and $6,000, but Maine Adaptive provides all necessary equipment for participants. “By providing that free of charge and providing the instruction free of charge, we eliminate a barrier to access,” says Schneider. “For families who have additional costs, because they have children with disabilities, or for folks on a fixed income, that’s made a big difference.” At Sunday River, the mountain provides lift tickets for participants and volunteers, while North East Mobile Health Services donates a bus that picks people up at the Iris Network’s housing center in Portland every week during ski season.

Maine Adaptive enables athletes to reach their highest level possible. Three Maine Adaptive skiers have competed internationally in the Paralympic Games: Carl Burnett (Salt Lake City, Utah, 2002, Torino, Italy, 2006, and Vancouver, British Columbia, 2010); Luba Lowery (Vancouver, 2010); and Lindsay Ball (Sochi, Russia, 2014). The Maine Adaptive Alpine Race Team has 10 to 15 members who train at Sunday River each week and compete in the Diana Golden Alpine Ski Race Series against racers from similar programs throughout New England. Athletes with physical disabilities participate in the Diana Golden Division, while athletes with intellectual disabilities race in the Mills Cup Division. Maine Adaptive has won the Diana Golden Cup for the past six years.

“Everybody has inside them some sort of athlete, whether it’s super competitive or just subtly competitive,” says Mark Stevens, vice president of the organization’s board of directors. “Some of these athletes actually compete against able-bodied athletes and do very well.” A former alpine ski racer, Stevens understands how important competition can be to one’s self-esteem. Stevens began his affiliation with Maine Adaptive at the suggestion of his father, cofounder Charlie Stevens, who prompted Mark and his Bates College teammates to take part in the organization’s first annual Ski-A-Thon in 1985.

The Maine Adaptive Ski-A-Thon held at Sunday River raises a significant portion of the organization’s yearly operating budget, which is about $750,000. The Ski-A-Thon engages Maine Adaptive’s entire yearlong community, including both participants and volunteers. Last March’s event raised $345,000. “It’s pretty exciting for me as an ex-racer…to watch these athletes come through the program and know that the dollars that we’ve raised and the opportunities we’ve afforded them allow them to get out there and get these same opportunities that regular able-bodied athletes get every day,” says Stevens.

Stevens gives credit to the people and facilities that have made it possible for Maine Adaptive to thrive, carrying out the legacy of his father and his father’s fellow cofounders. “I don’t think we
could emphasize enough Sunday River’s cooperation,” says Stevens. “They’ve been a phenomenal partner from the beginning.”

Thanks to the original vision of Crothers, who was inducted into the Maine Ski Hall of Fame for his work with Maine Handicapped Skiing prior to passing away in 2013 at the age of 71, Maine Adaptive has become the largest year-round adaptive program in the state of Maine for adults and children with disabilities. Stevens sees evidence of the importance of this every time he hits the Sunday River slopes. “To see these athletes move around on the mountain so freely when in their daily lives it’s a struggle to get around—some of them move probably better than 80 percent of the ski population that’s out there today,” says Stevens. “It’s phenomenal to watch.”