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‘Amazing’ special sports program gives participants freedom, independence

Santa Fe resident Nancy Desiderio, who is afflicted with multiple sclerosis, works her way down a run at Ski Santa Fe with instructor Stuart Pendleton as part of the Adaptive Sports Program New Mexico. (Courtesy of Richard Liberman)

Santa Fe resident Nancy Desiderio, who is afflicted with multiple sclerosis, works her way down a run at Ski Santa Fe with instructor Stuart Pendleton as part of the Adaptive Sports Program New Mexico. (Courtesy of Richard Liberman)

When Nancy Desiderio was younger, she preferred reading to physical activity.

But now that she’s older, and despite being afflicted with multiple sclerosis, she loves to tackle new challenges.

And she does so with the help of the Santa Fe-based Adaptive Sports Program New Mexico.

“It’s an amazing program,” she said. “I get out of the house and when you’re on skis, you’re flying. It’s like riding a bike, the freedom you have.”

Desiderio, 48, of Santa Fe, said she found out about the program several years ago from a neighbor who was a volunteer instructor with the program.

“He said I should get out and ski,” she said. “I’ve skied for two years now and I also do the summer program. I just love it.”

Desiderio, who walks with a forearm crutch and has to wear a custom-made ankle-foot orthosis, is just one of a number of program participants who have benefited from getting out of the house and being physically active, said Brett Maul, the director of operations.

The program was started 30 years ago by a Presbyterian Hospital employee who wanted to give those with physical ailments an option. People with just about any debilitating ailment are welcome and fees are extremely low because of the contributions of the volunteers, Maul said.

“We’ve relied on instructors to donate time,” he said. “It’s been an extremely successful model. I can’t say enough for the volunteers. They are why we are here.

And Maul, a former ski racer whose best friend growing up skied on one leg, has been involved in adaptive sports for years and is a wholesale advocate of the good it can do.

“For us, it’s about outdoors recreation,” he said. “I believe it gives therapeutic benefits. The physical activity and the nature of the sport also gives goals to shoot for within their lifestyle. And really that’s for anybody, whether they’re with a disability or not. The more active a person, the better off their situation will be.”

It’s become a very rewarding avocation, Maul added.

“It really makes a difference in people’s lives,” he said. “We’ve seen people go from 300 pounds and sitting on a couch to skiing by themselves. People are kind of cast off when they have a physical disability.

Thanks to financial assistance and the willingness to provide mountain time for participants, Ski Santa Fe and Sandia Peak are big sponsors of Adaptive Sports Program New Mexico, Maul said.

This coming ski season, the program will provide somewhere in the neighborhood of 1,600 ski lessons, he said, which would not be possible without the cooperation of the ski areas.

“Our No. 1 goal is to get people independent,” Maul said. “One of my favorite things is when a person is no longer a participant, but becomes an instructor.”

And crossing paths with a former participant who’s enjoying the ski trails with family is an experience that cannot really be adequately described, he said.

“I’ll see them on the hill with their families and they’ll stop and say ‘Hello’ with gratitude in their eyes,” Maul said. “We will do whatever it takes for them to be successful.”

While skiing is by far the biggest and most popular of the program’s offerings, summer activities are being becoming increasingly popular as more options are added. The program is up to 11 different disciplines, with plans to add more as qualified instructors become available.

This past weekend, archery was added for the first time and participants also did rock climbing, one using a special harness and seat system that Maul designed himself.

“The one we ordered didn’t come in, so the climbing chair I devised myself, he said. “I had to do this on an emergency basis. I was lucky I pulled it off, but it was good. It worked out well. We backed it up with a full harness. There was no way they could fall, but I went up in it first to make sure.”

Desiderio has also tried kayaking and sailing. “There’s just a joy in the physicalness of it,” she said. “It was a little scary at first, but it’s so worth it.”