By Eva Potter
When Chuck Richardson began working with special needs students on the slopes in 1996, he had no idea it would lead to the creation of the Phoenix Adaptive Program at HoliMont, nor did he know he would eventually be organizing an international race welcoming close to 80 racers at the annual Phoenix Rise to the Challenge race.
“It was all purely by accident,” said Richardson, Phoenix program director. “We had a student with special needs and they asked me to take him. Consequently, I started a whole program around him and a few others after that.”
The HoliMont program covers all disabilities, from physical to cognitive.
“We usually don’t say no to anyone,” said Richardson, explaining that “right now, we officially have 15 students that are members of the Adaptive Program and four or five guests who attend pretty much every week.”
One of the highlights of the program is the annual Phoenix “Rise to the Challenge” race, taking place on Saturday, Feb. 7 at HoliMont. What started as a club race has now grown into an international event, with enthusiastic participants traveling from Canada, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Western New York and even far-flung places like Hungary and Australia, for a day of competition, bonding and fun on the slopes.
Richardson said, “It’s a very popular annual event. People start emailing me in November to make sure we have the race!”
Although he hasn’t received all of this year’s paperwork, on average four American teams and four or five Canadian teams participate annually. Racers are mostly from Ohio, Pennsylvania, the local Western New York area, as well as Ontario, Canada. Regional ski areas like Swain, Holiday Valley, Kissing Bridge and possibly Bristol Mountain are expected to send teams this year.
“We usually get between 60 and 80 racers,” he estimated.
According to Richardson, participants fall into four categories: beginner, novice, semi-novice and expert. During their personal-best race, competitors take a run, establish a time and then strive to improve upon that time during the second run.
“We try to have the last race the expert race, a timed event, but there aren’t that many that are actually capable of doing timed events,” he said.
All racers receive a medal and certificate of completion at the awards ceremony and everyone is encouraged to stay for the après ski party, complete with live entertainment, at the end of the day.
Registration begins at 8 a.m., the first race begins at 9 a.m. and all racers are usually finished by about 2 p.m. Racers are not required to be part of a team. Individual racers are welcome to sign up.
In past years, other activities took place during the day, but this year the focus is on running a quality event. HoliMont Racing, the Ski Patrol, Safety Patrol, Ski School, Phoenix volunteers and many more band together to make this a successful event.
Tina Dillon has been a race volunteer and “den” mom for six years. Along with Carianne Herrich, she has helped coordinate various aspects of the race, from team registration to breakfast and lunch for the racers, and has helped hand out awards. The pair has also organized the annual 50/50 drawing that benefits the program.
“The HoliMont Phoenix Adaptive Ski Program is such a wonderful opportunity for disabled children and adults to have the experience of skiing,” said Dillon. “I truly feel like I am attending an Olympic event while watching the racers. No matter what their skill level, they give it their all, and the response from the race announcer and spectators brings tears to my eyes every year.”
If you’d like to see these determined children and adults in action, just come to HoliMont’s race hut that day and someone will point you in the right direction.
Asked about the most satisfying part of this race, Richardson responded without hesitation, “The parents … the parents really get involved. It’s emotional for them to watch their kids compete, earn bragging rights and have medals to take to their schools for show-and-tell. It’s very important to each individual to be able to share this experience with their peers.”
Whether on skis, a snowboard or a sit-ski, you can only be inspired by their joy and determination as you watch these athletes make their way down the course.
For more information or to register, call HoliMont Snowsports at (716) 699-8159 or Chuck Richardson at (716) 699-4594, or visit www.holimont.com/adaptive.