Skiing is scary enough for able-bodied participants but most people can only imagine how difficult and challenging it is for those with disabilities. Inspired in part by the evolution of the Para-Olympics, an increasing number of ski resorts are encouraging disabled kids and adults to get into winter sports.
Para Alpine Skier and Para Track Cyclist, Mel Pemble was born with Cerebral Palsy affecting the right side of her body. “At school I was different and felt frustrated in sports as I did not have the dexterity or strength to compete,” Pemble says. “I hated team sports as I always felt I was letting the team down.” Born in the U.K., her first taste of skiing was at age seven in France where a fall initially put her off the sport. “The experience left me with a twisted knee and a great fear of skiing, I never wanted to ski again,” she remembers.
Moving to Canada with her family two years later, she next encountered skiing at Mount Washington, British Columbia, where her parents encouraged her to try one more time, explained her situation to resort staff and asked for their best private ski instructor. “Dave Brown was that ski instructor and had I not met him I would not be skiing today,” says Pemble, who skis with one pole. Her disability affects balance, depth perception and steering and she also wears orthotics in her ski boots to address a collapsed arch and pronation. Despite a limp, improper heel strike, blistering and poor circulation, Pemble says that skiing makes her forget her disability: “It just does not exist and it’s a wonderful feeling.”
Gaining confidence and expertise with Brown as her regular instructor, Pemble was gradually introduced to the idea that she could not only ski but she was a very fast skier. Thrilled by her aptitude, the family decided to move to Mount Washington for the winter season 2011/12 and enroll her in the Podium of Life Ski Academy. “You do academics in the morning, skiing in the afternoon. It’s the coolest school in the world,” says Pemble. Making the Adaptive Snow Sports Team by January 2012, she entered her first Provincial Adaptive race in February, after just seven days of training, and qualified for the Provincial Adaptive Championships at Cypress Mountain March 2012. “My first race was Giant Slalom. It was such a buzz,” she says. “I was bib number 70 and second to go and to my relief I made all the gates, got lots of adrenaline and got gold!”
|Mel winning gold|
With lofty dreams of qualifying for the 2018 Paralympics, Pemble continued to work hard on speed and technique after her dazzling downhill debut. Next season she competed in the British Columbia Alpine Provincial Championships, won two golds at the 2013 Western Canadian Para-Alpine Championships and was named Vancouver Island Adaptive Snowsports Athlete of the Year. Having got into track cycling in 2013, she added road cycling to her regime in summer 2014, making the Dr. Walker Cycling Team. By winter 2014/15 she became one of five top British Columbia ‘athletes to watch’ in the Canada Winter Games, winning a gold in Giant Slalom and a silver in Slalom for Team BC. She also won four gold medals in the Western Championships and was invited to a Skills Assessment Camp with the Canadian National Team at Sunshine Village, Banff.
|Hearthstone Lodge, Sun Peaks|
In order to further her ambitions to compete in the 2018 Paralympics, Pemble and her family now spend winters in Sun Peaks BC. Designed by Paul Mathews for ease of access to the slopes, Sun Peaks is very well set up for disabled athletes. During winter 2014/15 Pemble lived with her parents in an apartment in Hearthstone Lodge literally a stone’s throw from the resort base, making it relatively easy for the necessary to-ing and fro-ing each day. The condominium’s outdoor hot tubs and gym are also useful facilities. With the slopes set in an arc around the resort, all the accommodation at Sun Peaks is ski in/out and Main Street is a wide, snowy thoroughfare where visitors and residents can ski down to all the lifts and services.
From its office on Main Street, Adaptive Sports at Sun Peaks (ASSP) runs low cost learn-to-ski programs for locals and pro-rated lessons for visitors. It is run by volunteers and sustained by fundraising. Pat McKimmon, President of ASSP, says that ski racing, however, is prohibitively expensive for the program – potential para athletes have to seek their own funding. “In terms of race development we envision providing some training for those students whose skills have developed to the ceiling of our program and who want to go further,” says McKimmon. “We see this more as preparation for the racing circuit but once students reach that level we cannot offer the support or finances they need.”
Pemble’s mother, Rachael Chubb-Higgins took the adaptive training program and also volunteered with the ASSP. “The high quality programs are continually being developed as the organization invests heavily in instructor training in CADS, CSIA & CASI certifications,” she says. “Instructors are encouraged to up their skill set. They continually strive to raise funds and awareness for ASSP. To improve in the future they are focusing on increasing the number of instructors and encouraging more students and also training people with disabilities to become instructors.” The ASSP offers sit-skiing, 3-track skiing, 4-track skiing, visually-impaired skiing, snowboard adaptations, snow limousine and facilities for autism and intellectual disabilities.
|Locals' favourite: Bolacco's Cafe, Sun Peaks|
Pemble’s rigorous training program at Sun Peaks involves six days on snow per week, coached by Bill Rublee, from Sun Peaks Alpine Club. As well as its Adaptive Sports facilities, the family chose Sun Peaks because of its great onhill community and family atmosphere. Other pluses for Pemble are the resort school and swimming pool. “And Bolacco’s café has fantastic home baking,” she says. Plans for 2015/16 season were to return to Sun Peaks for training and hopefully progress to the provincial and national team.