Achieve Tahoe opens the door to winter sports for disabled veterans | TheUnion.com

Achieve Tahoe opens the door to winter sports for disabled veterans

Hannah Jones
Special to The Union

With the help of instructors from Achieve Tahoe, disabled veterans got the chance to hit the slopes at Squaw Valley last week as part of the nonprofit's 10th annual Anthem Winter Ski Festival.

Each year Achieve Tahoe, which helps those with disabilities participate in challenging winter and summer sports, provides veterans injured during their service with complimentary lessons on adaptive ski equipment.

"I have no words to describe it," said Lidia Lopez, an Army veteran who was able to try skiing for the first time. Lopez, who served in the Army for seven and a half years, traveled from Phoenix, Arizona after hearing about the program through a friend. "This has been so amazing. I just hope other vets and people with disabilities can learn about this."

With the sponsorship from Anthem Blue Cross, Squaw Valley Alpine Meadows and Warfighter Sports, a program offered by Disabled Sports USA, veterans were also offered overnight stays in the village, meals and transportation.

The group of veterans varied in age and disabilities from amputees to those with spinal cord injuries or who are visually impaired. Each participant had a personal instructor either guiding them through shouted commands or holding onto their monoskis while assisting them in making turns down the hill.

According to Michael Hunter, Achieve Tahoe's program director, sharing the sport with those who typically wouldn't be able to participate "means everything."

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"Skiing has always been a really important part of my life and it's helped me to build health and confidence," said Hunter. "Our mission is to help people build health, confidence and independence through high challenge sports like skiing."

As someone who has been skiing nearly his whole life, and instructing adaptive snow sports for 12 years, Hunter said he couldn't imagine his life without the sport.

"I love seeing all of our guests find the freedom and independence that skiing gives all of us," he said.

Hunter said without the support of the community the event wouldn't be possible.

"For people with disabilities the equipment is more expensive and the opportunity is more expensive," he said, noting donations made to make their work possible. "We really appreciate being in Tahoe and having such a loving and supporting community."

Founded in 1967, Achieve Tahoe has been the longest operating adaptive sports program in the country. Throughout the year, the program provides adults and children with physical, sensory and intellectual disabilities the opportunity to participate in outdoor recreation activities that would typically be off limits for those individuals. According to Hunter, the program's youngest skier last year was 3-years-old and the oldest was 98.

"What's exciting for us is building inclusivity for people," said Camille Cauchois, program manager. She said that many of the families that participate have a family member with autism or a spinal cord injury.

Cauchois recalled a student she has skied with for the past five years who has an intellectual disability.

"It's something that has brought him a lot of confidence and made him believe in himself more," she said. "It's been really wonderful to watch him grow not only as a skier, but as a person, through it."

Cauchois said that most families may not think it's possible to ski together if a family member has such a disability.

"When they find this opportunity and get to teach their loved one to ski and make it a sport that they all get to do together, that piece of inclusivity is really important to us," she said. "It shows that the mountain is accessible and open to everyone."

Hannah Jones is a reporter for the Sierra Sun, a sister publication of The Union. She can be reached at hjones@sierrasun.com or 530-550-2652.

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