By Mark Mulligan Herald Writer
Cece Black, 23, jokes that she moved back to the Pacific Northwest after college just for the skiing.
When you see her carving across the mountain at Stevens Pass on a Sunday afternoon, you realize that Black is more serious than she lets on.
“I feel like normally in your wheelchair, the outdoors is something that’s a little limited to you because it’s not pavement or flat surfaces, so it’s really awesome to be out here,” said Black, of Mukilteo, a paraplegic who navigates the slopes in a sit-ski. The device is a molded plastic seat connected by a shock absorber to a pair of specially shaped skis.
Black danced ballet before being injured in 2005 when her family’s car was struck in a head-on collision. She now finds skiing comparable to dancing. Like with ballet, “you feel kind of graceful,” she said of skiing.
“When you finally get the hang of it or the perfect run, I feel like it’s pretty similar to how you feel in ballet, because, you’re just kind of free,” she said.
That kind of freedom is the mission of Outdoors for All, a Seattle-based non-profit organization that just completed winter programs at three area mountains, including Stevens Pass. Black was one of 33 participants, who along with 82 volunteers, met Sunday mornings at Stevens Pass to enjoy the outdoors. The programs pair volunteer instructors with participants, who range from complete beginners to skiers who have done the program before and are back for more.
Skiing isn’t the only activity organized by Outdoors for All. It provides year-round adaptive recreation opportunities for adults and children with physical, developmental and sensory disabilities, says Connor Inslee, Program Director and Chief Operating Officer for Outdoors for All.
‘Grab on to the things you like’
In front of the Tye Creek Lodge, Walter Voll, Jr. is being fitted for a monoski for the first time. In 1998, Voll started to feel the left side of his body going numb and soon was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. As Voll continues to experience the disease’s degenerative effect, he has committed himself to getting out ahead of it. Skiing is a step in that direction.
“It’s about something I used to enjoy when I was a child. And nowadays, they say, try to grab on to the things you like. It will keep you involved. And that’s exactly what I’ve been doing,” Voll said.
While he is still able to walk, Voll recently discovered he could no longer ski with his wife using traditional skis. The pain in his muscles and joints was too overwhelming. Still, he wanted to keep enjoying the sport, now and into the future.
A friend, also living with MS, told him about his experience using a monoski. Now, thanks to a recommendation from the Veterans Administration, Voll is engaged in a seven-week course of half-day lessons with Outdoors for All.
With two instructors by his side, Voll started his first day out on the bunny slope. Several hard falls were the price to pay for a few seconds of gliding smoothly down the hill atop the monoski. Still, the benefits are very real, he said.
“Everything’s therapeutic, everything’s good about this,” Voll said. “I’m exercising joints that normally aren’t exercising. I’m using my abdominal muscles more than I ever will — I’m working with the upper body. Everything that has been deteriorating on me due to lack of real use, has a chance to recover. It may not be 100 percent because multiple sclerosis may not ever let me get that much better, but at least I’ll be physically better for it.”
Sense of adventure
For Black, the sit-ski provides some of the adventure she naturally craves. Flying down Skyline, an instructor holds a safety line behind her, but Black is in control. Once she hones her sit-ski skills, she will be ready to go alone. The goal is to be able to just come out with a friend and ski, Black said.
She has a certain friend in mind. In the summer of 2011, Black and pal Riley Jones travelled in Africa.
“We’re pretty good at being adventurous together — and terrorizing my mom together,” Black said.
Her mother, Janis, agreed: “I had one wish. She’d already bungee jumped in South Africa, and I said, ‘just don’t bungee jump off Victoria Falls, just don’t do that, just don’t do that.’ And of course they did it.”
“I think it fuels my sense of adventure, to be honest,” Black said with a grin. “What would my mom disapprove of?”
The exuberance and spirit shown by Black and other participants inspires Outdoors for All volunteer Rick Bender. It’s what keeps him coming back.
“You saw Cece just ripping up the hill. You know, partly it’s just the challenge of keeping up with her, but being able to have someone who’s young but paralyzed just go for it and be able to share some of it with her,” Bender said.
“It’s just exhilarating.”
That sense of shared experience is true, too, for Inslee as he runs Outdoors for All.
“To me, getting outside is what my life’s been about, so I just want to get everybody else outside if they need a helping hand or they’ve had an injury,” Inslee said. “That’s what I love to do, and I think that’s what they want to do too.”
To greater heights
It has been a long first day on the slopes for Voll. As he makes his way back to the lodge, he emphasizes that despite the bumps and bruises, he just enjoys being out on the mountain.
Then he turns his head and looks up, far beyond the bunny slope, and points to the very top of the mountain.
“And I look forward to getting way up there,” Voll said.
Outdoors for All will start another skiing program, this one three weeks long, in March. The rest of the year, Outdoors for All offers opportunities for individuals with physical and mental disabilities to cycle, water ski, canoe, kayak, river raft and rock climb. Information is available at: http://www.outdoorsforall.org/