The first few times Cody Schlecht aimed down the bunny hill at Spirit Mountain on Wednesday afternoon there were straps that ran from his skis to a ski instructor trailing behind.
That didn’t last long.
After a few practice runs Schlecht, 15, from Willmar, Minn., was on his own, his first time skiing with outrigger poles fitted with mini skis on the ends.
“He’s skied before, but not with poles. Balance is a big issue with these kids,” said Carey Schlecht, Cody’s dad.
“These kids” means kids with spina bifida, a spinal deformity Cody was born with. Cody needs ankle braces to walk. But that’s not keeping him off the slopes during the 13th Annual Courage Kenny Rehabilitation Institute – Northland ski camp running through Friday at Spirit Mountain.
“He’s got such a big heart. He thinks he can do anything. And who are we to say he can’t?” Carey said while using his smartphone to shoot video of his son traversing the hill.
Cody made it clear the new outrigger poles were helping.
“Great,” he said before heading up the conveyor belt lift to the top of the hill.
Just downslope, Ken Brookins of Osceola, Wis., was getting strapped into a so-called mono-ski, a sit-down contraption bolted to a single ski on which Brookins has to balance.
Brookins, 42, like most of the 32 skiers as this year’s camp, is a paraplegic. But he’s been skiing for five years on mono-skis, so he is no beginner.
Brookins likes skiing so much that he went all-out, buying his own mono-ski for more than $6,000.
Brookins keeps coming back to the camp at Spirit Mountain not just for expert lessons — from local and national ski and mono-ski instructors, some from Colorado — but also for the camaraderie of being with athletes like himself who usually are confined to wheelchairs, either due to birth defects such as spina bifida or, mostly, because of spinal cord injuries.
“Just to be able to be out here with all the other guys in the same shoes I’m in is great,” he said. “But we can also learn a lot… I’m still learning after five years.”
The chairlift back up the hill remains a challenge.
“That’s the hardest part, really,” he said.
Brookins had help fine-tuning his mono-ski from Duluth’s Tim Perala, who is in his fourth year as a volunteer ski instructor at the camp. Perala said he gets motivated watching the mono-skiers advance.
“I get juiced-up watching them,” Perala said. “Just to see their faces when they are going downhill.”
And off the pair went downhill. More than 35 volunteers such as Perala help the camp run well.
This year’s event includes skiers as young as 11 and 14 and some into their 40s, from across Minnesota and Wisconsin.
At night, Olympic and Paralympic-caliber ski instructors critique video of each skier at the camp, advancing their style and technique for the next day of skiing. The goal is to get skiers to function independently on the slopes, culminating with a race on Friday.
Eric Larson, supervisor of the adaptive sports and recreation program for the Duluth-based Courage Kenny Rehabilitation Institute – Northland, said downhill skiing’s biggest element, gravity, helps athletes with disabilities overcome physical restrictions. It also gets them outside and active in winter, an especially tough time to be traversing the Northland in a wheelchair.
“People who have a hard time moving 30 feet in 30 seconds can cover it in three seconds out here,” he said. “That doesn’t just make them better skiers, it gives them more confidence in life.”
In addition to the three-day Alpine skiing camp, the institute is holding a Nordic skiing and biathlon camp this week. It’s part of the year-round adaptive sports and recreation program that runs from wheelchair basketball to rock climbing to archery, bowling, horseback riding and more.
“It’s unlocking potential people have locked inside them but maybe didn’t know it,” Larson said. “It’s the epitome of what we do — tearing down barriers.”