RISING ABOVE ADVERSITY Challenge Aspen takes its expertise to Portillo, Chile By Amanda Boxtel Special to the Aspen Daily News How does someone blind ski? How does someone ski without the use of his or her arms or legs? When does ability far surpass disability? Skiing for the disabled has become a common sight on the slopes of Aspen and Snowmass thanks to a local nonprofit organization of which I am a co-founder, Challenge Aspen. It has been said that "Challenge Aspen gives our community soul," and a sense of what matters in life, proving that life is worth living despite adversity. And living life to the fullest becomes paramount with Challenge Aspen. Why Portillo, Chile? The invitation came to us at Challenge Aspen as a request to mutually learn from, teach and exchange ideas with instructors and staff of Portillo Ski Resort. Challenge Aspen has helped open up disabled programs in Akureryi, Iceland; Sierra Nevada, Spain; and Let Getz, France. Through an international symposium held in 2000, 43 individuals from 15 countries exchanged ideas about sports recreation for the disabled, with a focus on skiing. Challenge Aspen has become internationally recognized as a model program for providing recreational opportunities and life experiences for those with disabilities. The bottom line becomes the participant, the blind child or the quadriplegic son, each making a life change regardless of their disability. Challenge Aspen has a lot more in common with Portillo than one would think. Two countries. Two ski resorts. A common vision with a new key objective - solidarity for the disabled. Last week, my colleagues Houston Cowan, Christopher Bove and I set out on the long journey 6,000 miles south of here to introduce skiing for the disabled to Portillo. With language as a potential barrier, we knew that skiing would become our common language. We became one race, one color with one vision. Ability was our focus. We were there to provide the experience of a lifetime to disabled children who never believed it was possible to ski. It was about being open to the possibilities for people with disabilities, which is what Challenge Aspen does best. With the venture fully sponsored, our mission was easily accomplished thanks to an anonymous donor of air miles, a Delta Airlines sponsorship of one international ticket and food, lift tickets and accommodations provided by Portillo Ski Resort. "Thanks for all you've done in Portillo these past few days," wrote Ellen Purcell, co-owner of Portillo Ski Resort with her husband Henry, in a thank-you letter to Challenge Aspen. "All of us are bigger and better people for what we participated in and/or witnessed. How can we thank you for such personal enrichment and inspiration?" Initiated by Mario Fernandez, an instructor for Portillo and Aspen Skiing Co., the idea was quickly put into action with the help of an extremely supportive team from Portillo. Fernandez was the one who had the vision and spearheaded the program, which turned out to be a phenomenal experience for his peers and individuals with disabilities. Mario was awarded Aspen Skiing Co.'s "Rookie of the Year" honors last season, and he has proven that he can make anything happen. Portillo now boasts 21 newly trained adaptive ski instructors who taught several disabled children to ski. Disabilities are already recognized in Chile Challenge Aspen has helped the Chilean ski resort of Portillo open up skiing for the disabled in a country that already embraces disabilities on a scale comparable to that of the United States. The Americans with Disabilities Act has created awareness for disabilities and instigated a more barrier-free environment for disabled individuals within the United States. So, too, has Chile. Twenty-two years ago, the Chileans proudly came up with a way to create national awareness for disabled people by establishing Teleton, Chile, an organization dedicated to helping the disabled suppress architectural, mental and human barriers and lead a life of dignity. By means of an annual televised national telethon, the country has made a commitment to honor the disabled community. Teleton is led by key Chilean figure Don Francisco. Teleton is made up of hundreds of rehabilitation experts in charge of the training of more than 17,000 children and young people who fight a daily battle against adversity. The children who learned to ski in Portillo were children from a Teleton rehabilitation center in a coastal community called Valparaiso. Together they made the three-hour journey to Portillo for an experience of a lifetime. Portillo Ski Resort is in the heart of the Andes Mountain Range, the spine of South America. Portillo is approximately 2 1/2 hours by car from Santiago. The windiest road, which is the international route between Chile and Argentina, has 20 curves climbing 2,800 meters in altitude. The series of switchbacks on the road are known as the Cuesta de Caracoles or Snail's Slope. Twisting en route through breathtaking scenery and mountains that seem to go on forever, one can't help but feel daunted by the anticipation of skiing in such a grandiose place. Portillo is bewitching, and like Aspen, it has a deep soul. Nestled at the foot of the Lake of the Incas, the Grand Hotel (where we would be staying) overlooks a mountainscape that beckons one's attention. The lake, covered by a silent mantle of snow, carries a legend of the Incas that has left Portillo with a spirit of love and mystery. Portillo is South America's premier ski resort as well as a haven for skiers and snowboarders from around the world. The friendliness of the Chilean people provides a guaranteed welcome, and the convenience and intimacy of the Grand Hotel will put a smile on any face, especially someone in a wheelchair. Ease of accessibility to practically every facility, including the ski slope, makes this a prime resort for individuals with disabilities. With just a 3-foot push from the door to the snow and a staff willing to help in any way possible, I was in heaven. The instructors, the kids Like an army of enthusiastic troops camouflaged in blue and yellow uniforms, up to 21 ski instructors showed up promptly at 8:30 a.m. each morning for three intense days of training in every discipline of adaptive skiing, including mono-skiing, blind, bi-skiing, amputee three-tracking and cognitive. Equipment safety and familiarization was key. It was as if we were teaching the A-Team: Every skill we taught was mastered almost immediately. By the end of the third day, we were ready to meet the kids. They were sitting in the dining room, nine innocent and eager faces and "no hablo ingles." Our español left much to be desired. Nine disabled children from Teleton: Alex, Victor and Javiera were all single-leg amputees; Nicolas had no arms; Matias was visually impaired; Claudia was blind; Daniela was on crutches; Carlos was in a wheelchair with spina bifida; and Madeline was in a wheelchair with a spinal-cord injury. Our challenges were in front of us, literally. And it was obvious that the instructors felt a little overwhelmed by the reality of teaching these kids how to ski. The story that brought our efforts to life was that of Claudia and her mother, Elba. Claudia is 17 years old and lost her sight at age 2 from retinal blasphoma. Claudia and Elba had never skied before. Samuel, Claudia's instructor from Portillo, had never taught a blind person how to ski. With the patience of an angel, Samuel guided Claudia down the gentle slope, a bamboo pole connecting them like a hyphenated word. Together, they danced in synchronicity until Claudia had the courage to make turns on her own. On the third day, Claudia and Elba skied together for the first time, linking their turns with Samuel calling commands from behind. Houston, Chris and I watched with tears welling in our eyes. It is now Elba's wish to learn how to guide her daughter in downhill skiing. Our mission had truly been met. In Chile, Teleton has proved that the human spirit can rise above anything. Through Teleton, Chileans have learned that the number of handicapped people in their country constitutes 10 percent of the population. Fifty-five million individuals in the United States have a disability, which is over 20 percent of our population. As a nation, we are one of the leaders in new adaptive technologies to help disabled individuals lead full and barrier-free lifestyles. And this is where Challenge Aspen comes into play. The organization donated two mono-skis to the Portillo program, along with several sets of outriggers, setting Portillo on its way to becoming a center for adaptive skiing in Chile. The program continues For the next five weekends, until the close of the ski season in Portillo, the nine disabled children of Teleton will spread their wings on the snow and master their newly acquired skiing skills. "We are going to see that the program continues in Portillo and that you get all the help we can give you to go ahead with Teleton," said Henry Purcell. "The work you do and the wonderful enthusiasm that you bring to that work has been an inspiration to us all." As Challenge Aspen has been received and supported by our community since its inception almost seven years ago, so has this new program in Portillo. The support from the management and entire staff is almost unheard of. Our hearts were warmed by the receptiveness and enthusiasm from everyone involved, even the quiet onlooker and hotel guest. "Thanks for all you did for us, the kids, the instructors, the Purcell family, the guests and employees," wrote Ellen Purcell in her letter. "Everyone is feeling better about themselves because of your visit and that is a real gift." We also left our mark with the Chilean media on a national television station, which broadcasted a 5-minute segment on our recent trip and the children of Teleton. In addition, Chilean newspapers, including La Tercera, La Segunda and El Mercurio, published articles on the project. Without question, Portillo will become more and more recognized as a center for teaching the disabled how to ski. We at Challenge Aspen welcome and encourage future exchanges and ongoing training for Portillo's instructors and ski school. We wish them continued success. But the most powerful image that stays imprinted in my mind and heart is of that of 9-year-old Javiera's big brown eyes, long eyelashes and thick, wavy black pigtails. Her left leg was amputated above the knee due to cancer, and the tiredness from being ill often reflected in her eyes. Her spirit and determination shined throughout her three days at Portillo. Javiera learned to ski on one leg. I saw a quiet, serene child who was at times in pain and yet always determined. I wondered what she was thinking. I wondered if she was happy. When it was time to say goodbye, it was Javiera who shed the tears for the group. Javiera didn't want to leave. I wondered no longer. Her tears became the voice for us all.