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How the National Ability Center Breaks Barriers to Mountain Sports

Backcountry partners with the National Ability Center (NAC) around the shared mission of breaking down barriers between humans and nature. The NAC is a world-class organization that provides access to all kinds of outdoor activities for people with disabilities. Based in Park City, Utah, the NAC aims to break down the barriers to outdoor recreation, and has been helping people get active outside since the 1980s. 

To empower even more people to live a life closer to the outdoors, Backcountry features adaptive athletes in stories, serves as an outfitter of NAC athletes and guides, and co-hosts fundraisers, like the upcoming Stoke Series Live, to benefit the NAC. 

We recently spoke to Madison Baumann, an adaptive skier from the NAC, to hear how the NAC opened up the mountains for her and countless others in the U.S. and beyond. 

 

For Madison Baumann, a visually impaired skier from Washington State, racing down hills is everything. She first hit the slopes at age two, honing her skills in nearby Whistler. Soon, she began competing in junior races across the country.

But at just 11 years old, a near-fatal car accident stripped her of her vision in her left eye, leaving only partial sight in her right. In an instant, her life was altered forever, and she lost the ability to take part in what mattered to her most. 

Over the next few years, Madison trained hard to regain her former skills. Learning to ski with a guide at Whistler’s adaptive sports program, she fought to recover the skiing prowess she’d achieved at such a young age, yet racing remained out of reach.

Then, when she was 22 years old, a move to Utah introduced her to a new opportunity to seek fulfillment on the slopes. “I was so excited about moving to Utah, but I didn’t know who I’d be able to ski with,” explains Madison. Fortunately, one of the guides she worked with at Whistler had a solution. He told her about an amazing organization called the National Ability Center (NAC).

Starting in 1985 out of a trailer at the bottom of Park City Mountain, the NAC initially helped veterans with physical injuries or post-traumatic stress disorder get out and recreate. As time went on, the NAC’s mission grew to cover all individuals with disabilities and their families. Today, the NAC helps people realize their dreams of biking, archery, kayaking, wakeboarding, and rafting in the summer, and skiing, snowboarding, snowshoeing, and fat biking in the winter. 

Best of all for Madison, the NAC has a ski race team of its own. “I tried out for the team and got a spot, training with them every week,” says Madison. “Racing was my whole life, so it was incredible to be able to come out and be free on the hill.” Now 25, Madison has regained the confidence to compete again. Only this time around, she races with a guide. 

“In every visually impaired category of competition, you ski with a guide,” explains Madison. “My guide, Hillary, is also an assistant coach with the ski team at the NAC. She helps me down the hill by calling out the obstacles or features. ‘It’s a double.’ ‘It’s an icy turn.’ I call out ‘got it’ or ‘made it’ or, when I’ve fallen, ‘skier down!’ Then she knows to stop.”

Pairing a guide and a skier isn’t always straightforward. It mostly happens through word of mouth or a mutual friend, but the NAC can help. When Madison’s last guide was injured a week before a race, the NAC stepped in, pairing her with Hillary, who had also grown up racing.

Hillary and Madison, who have now skied together for three years, are compatible thanks to their small size—Madison is 4’10”, and Hillary’s just an inch taller. Ideally, a visually impaired skier and a guide have similar body types so that their carving styles are well-matched. “You have to have a lot of faith in the person you’re following,” Madison says. “You need to be able to trust they’re going to get you down in one piece.”

It’s this trust and time spent together on the slopes that leads to strong bonds between visually impared skiers and their guides. Another case in point? Danelle Umstead, an alpine skier on the U.S. Paralympics team, who skis with her sighted guide and husband Rob Umstead. Together, they won bronze medals in both the downhill and super combined disciplines at the 2010 Vancouver Paralympic Games. “It’s really cool to see their relationship on the hill,” says Madison. “They have such trust in each other, through all aspects of their lives.”

Unfortunately, people like Danelle and Madison are the exception, not the rule. Of the estimated 48.9 million people in the U.S. with a disability, it’s thought that 85 percent are not active. But the latter is reversing fast, thanks to organizations like the NAC. The increasing activity of people with disabilities is also on the rise due to the exposure provided by the Paralympics—and the near-blanket CBS coverage of the 2018 winter games in PyeongChang. The higher profile adaptive pursuits, the more people are taking up adaptive sports.

“I’m not just surrounded by visually impaired skiers at the NAC,” says Madison. “There are people who are paralysed, who have cerebral palsy, spina bifida, or are missing a limb. It’s amazing to watch them conquer not only sports, but life in general.”

This year, Madison had designs on competing in ski racing full-time, but an unexpected roadblock put a stop to her plans. Every athlete must have a license to race, and for adaptive athletes, this also includes a disability classification. Determined through assessment by the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) in Germany, Madison made the journey to have her eyesight classified by the IPC doctors. After undergoing tests, she was told that she had too much sight to qualify. 

“I have 10 degrees too much peripheral vision to the left side. They classified me as a B4 factor racer, and the only categories that can currently compete in the U.S. are B1-3. It changed my whole season.”

While disappointing, there’s still hope for her dream of competing internationally. This season, the IPC have run tests with fully sighted skiers using goggles that obscure part of the vision in an effort to better understand where the boundary lies for skiing unguided. “We’re hoping someone with 53 degrees of vision says, ‘I can’t do this all alone,” explains Madison. “Right now the cut-off is 40 degrees, and I’m just outside of that. They’ll either change it, or stick with what they’ve got.”

Until that day comes, Madison will stay involved with the team at the NAC in whatever way she can. She wants to help her athletes and friends make it to the national team and next winter games, whether that’s coaching new athletes, or carting jackets from the starting gates to the bottom of the hill.

“I’m a happier and luckier person to be a part of the National Ability Center,” Madison says. “Not only as part of their race team, but as a member of staff and their family.”

Backcountry and the National Ability Center (NAC) have joined forces to help break down the barriers to the outdoors. Want to get involved? Join us for an upcoming Stoke Series event. The next event will kick off on September 20 in Park City. Stoke Series Live is a fundraiser for the NAC where 10 speakers will share stories about how they’ve overcome barriers between themselves and nature. Find out more about the NAC at discovernac.org.