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Providing a pathway

With the Paralympics fast approaching, Pique looks at the evolution of the Whistler organization supporting adaptive athletes of all stripes

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The Whistler Adaptive Sports Program (WASP) is not, in spite of what you may think, a disability-centred organization.

This might not exactly square up with the general perception of a program that has, over the years, introduced thousands of individuals with disabilities to a growing list of adaptive sports. But for the people behind the scenes, like executive director Chelsey Walker, it's an important philosophical distinction that sets WASP apart from virtually any other program of its kind on the planet.

"Just because an individual happens to have a disability doesn't mean they need to go through a disability-focused organization," she explains. "We focus on the athlete first. We're essentially a sport organization that provides services for individuals with a disability."

This broad mandate wasn't always the reality at WASP. Now in its 19th year, in the earliest days, the not-for-profit society naturally focused on offering training in adaptive sports inherent to Whistler's alpine setting. Today, the organization offers a range of training year-round in over a dozen different sports, along with other recreational and therapeutic programs for people with cognitive, physical or sensory disabilities.

I do think that changing into a multi-sport organization really opened people's eyes. Some people think these athletes just sit-ski, but we have individuals who ride the park that are visually impaired, or a local gal who hopped on a bike for her first day who is tetraplegic," Walker says. "Those types of stories and encounters with Whistlerites on the trails or on the water has really helped people realize anything is possible, that there are no limitations."

It's those kind of personal epiphanies that speak to the true power of what WASP does: Along with the obvious benefits that come with being active through sport, the organization helps empower individuals long after they've put down their paddle or ski poles.

"Programs like WASP certainly give that sense of freedom from being involved in sport and being able to get down the mountain or paddle a kayak — or whatever it is," remarks alpine skier and three-time Paralympian Lauren Woolstencroft, who holds the record for most gold medals — five — of any Canadian Olympic or Paralympic athlete. "It's about that feeling of success, at any level. Success isn't necessarily about standing on a podium. It's about achieving a goal."

Connecting to community

For eight-year-old Whistlerite Soskay Matsunaga, life was a struggle from birth. Born with Down syndrome and a congenital heart defect, Soskay spent much of the first two months of his life on an operating table at the B.C. Children's Hospital. While undergoing open-chest surgery, he suffered a heart attack. Doctors were doubtful Soskay would survive, eventually placing him in end-of-life care at the Canuck Place Children's Hospice in Vancouver. His parents, battered by a steady stream of bad news, prepared for the worst-case scenario.

But Soskay has made a habit of beating the odds. Today, he is a smiley young boy who can't seem to stay out of the Meadow Park Sports Centre pool.

For a child who couldn't walk until he was five years old, swimming appeared out of the question. But, thanks to the support of Whistler Adaptive, Soskay has managed to defy expectations once more.

"Because my son was quite small and there were so many medical issues, we didn't think he was ready for it," remembers Akiho, Soskay's mother.

"From the beginning, he really loved it, he loved being in the water. The coach at that time was really great to take it one step at a time."

When Soskay first started swimming lessons in late 2016, he was scared of doing much, wary of even putting his face in the water. That isn't the case anymore.

"Now he's really comfortable in the water, putting his face down and diving in, and practicing the duck float," Akiho says.

The value Soskay has gleaned from taking part in the adaptive program stretch beyond the pool, too. It's given him a life outside the home, outside the array of hospital rooms he has spent more time in than any child should ever have to. In short, it's helped forge links to a community he spent the first years of his life isolated from.

"He needs to go out, we need to go out. I want him to be known to the community so he's not some kind of alien, you know? He lives here, and we need to connect with the community. WASP is giving us that window," says Akiho. "It's broadened his life."

All in the family

When WASP touts its wide-ranging mandate, it's more than mere lip service. The organization has evolved to the point where it can support not only athletes with disabilities, but their families, too — another factor setting it apart from other adaptive programs.

"We have a very inclusive and integrated approach, so, say you have two children who want to try kayaking, we're not necessarily going to send one child off to a typical kayaking program and take the other child specially into Whistler Adaptive." explains Walker, WASP director. "It's not uncommon at our kids' camp to have siblings being dropped off at the same time, because we can provide specialized support for one child and have the other child participate fully in all the other sports."

The importance of this inclusive approach cannot be overstated. In a world where disabled children are sometimes gawked at in public and singled out from their peers, offering the opportunity for a kid to, well, just be a kid, with their family in tow, is significant.

"I grew up with a disability, and as a kid, I never wanted to feel like I was in a special program," says Woolstencroft. "I feel like WASP has done a good job of not making it seem that way. Really focusing on the experience and ensuring that each person and athlete involved has the best experience for them, and they don't feel like they're just off to the side doing a special program. I think that's a real testament to Whistler Adaptive's success."

For the Matsunaga family, WASP's kids' camp last summer marked the first time Soskay and his older sister, Nana, were able to attend camp together. Just being around other kids who could relate to her home life was a rare opportunity for the 10-year-old.

"Having a special-needs sibling, not many children have that kind of experience. Sometimes (Nana) is isolated too and people don't understand that — even I don't understand," admits Akiho. "Being there together and having everyone included, both special needs and their siblings, that was really crucial for both of them to feel whole."

The camp also offered a measure of relief for Akiho, who was mostly bed-ridden last summer with shingles.

"When I was sick, I couldn't go anywhere. I couldn't drive, I couldn't go out. So my kids, for a whole two months, they probably would have stayed home. They wouldn't have had anything to do. That would have been devastating," she says. "Luckily, WASP took them so they had something every week, and they really enjoyed it. They supported not only Soskay, but my whole family."

What's more is WASP works hard to ensure there are as few financial barriers as possible for the individuals taking part in their programs. WASP, a registered charity, relies almost entirely on private funding (it's annual Community Enrichment Program grant through the municipality accounts for only about three per cent of WASP's overall funding). Walker says that, for every $1 an individual pays for programming, WASP will raise another $2 to $3.

"Our philosophy is to keep the cost of sport similar to what it would cost an individual to engage in a typical sport program," she adds.

The road to recovery

It would be easy to wrap Olivia Rey's story in a neat little bow, to give it the happy ending that we crave with these types of narratives.

But the reality is, Rey, who suffered a debilitating spinal injury in a horrific car accident on Highway 99 three years ago, has got a long way to go in her recovery. The crash left her with a dislocated neck and two broken vertebrae. Without feeling in her legs and fingers, Rey remains in a wheelchair, unable to resume her career in massage therapy or the active mountain lifestyle she enjoyed before the accident.

Rey admits she still has dark moments, struggling to wrap her head around the limitations the injury has left her with.

"I haven't accepted my situation, the way my life has completely changed. I haven't accepted my physical disability. It's a tough mental game," she concedes.

An avid boarder and longtime skier before the injury, Rey says the winter months can be especially tough on her.

"It still is isolating. Snow and wheelchairs don't really go together," she says. "I used to be a pretty social person before this, too. In the summer, it's a little bit better, but in the winter, I'm often cooped up inside."

Described by friends as a generous, selfless soul, it's not surprising that, despite everything Rey's endured, she still finds a way to let some light in through the darkness.

It would be naïve to say that sense of optimism stems entirely from Rey's recent participation in WASP's sit-ski program, but there's no denying it has played a small, yet important part in shifting her mindset.

"It's added something to my life to show me what I'm able to do," she notes. "The program is created so people in my situation are able to do and participate in activities that I don't think other communities would have. It's been good emotionally."

Rey says she wasn't aware of the extent of WASP's programming until Walker reached out to get her involved. Along with sit-skiing, she's also tried out adaptive kayaking and biking in the summer.

It's helped her gain a better sense of what her body is capable of, but it's also shown her the value of pressing on, of pushing through those difficult moments when she doesn't feel like fighting anymore.

"This is my situation, and it's going to be like that for probably a while, at least until research does its thing. 'How do you move forward from that?' That could have been my attitude towards the injury," she says. "But it's not by sitting and dwelling that you're going to move forward. You have to push yourself to figure out the new you."

It might seem like an odd position to take for someone in her situation, but the accident and subsequent support Rey has received from the community — WASP included — has helped her gain a new appreciation for what she does have.

"Having that support from the community has been so helpful. It's a bonus. I've had a lot of love from people I don't even know. I've just been really lucky, I guess," she muses. "My friends have made me realize how important it is to remember how I was as a person (before the accident). I was always trying to help people, so now I'm receiving that back. It's almost like karma. I've been very fortunate with the support I've had from this community. I never even knew Whistler had such an amazing community until this happened to me."

For more information on the Whistler Adaptive Sports Program, visit whistleradaptive.com.


Your Paralympic Primer

Though the excitement of the 2018 Winter Olympic Games in PyeongChang has wound down, there are still a number of athletes set to test their mettle as they compete for medals.

The 2018 Paralympic Winter Games will run from March 8 to 18, as the world's best adaptive athletes compete in alpine skiing, biathlon, cross-country skiing, ice hockey, snowboarding and wheelchair curling.

The Sea to Sky region has its share of athletes set to head over to South Korea — a handful of which have gone through the Whistler Adaptive program — and here are four to keep an eye on:

Mollie Jepsen — Para-Alpine skiing

March 9, 10, 12, 14 and 17 - 4:30 p.m.

The 18-year-old Mollie Jepsen could very well give something to celebrate for not only Whistlerites, but all Canadians.

The Whistler Mountain Ski Club alumnus, who clinched the Para-Alpine World Cup Crystal Globe in Kimberley last month, was born missing fingers on her left hand. Growing up racing against her able-bodied peers, she more than held her own. Skiing since the age of two, Jespen climbed the ladder in Whistler, and started racing just after the 2010 Games here in B.C., which was a great boost.

"I lived in Creekside at the time and literally could walk out my front door and see an event like slalom taking place right in my backyard, where I learned to ski. It was really inspiring," she says.

On-course injuries have at times hampered Jepsen in her career, missing a year of U16 because of an ACL reconstruction, and then her first year of FIS action. Last season, she started off the year set to race at the top level, as well as in Europa Cup events, but then broke her ankle in January 2017 to scuttle her campaign.

Needless to say, getting to the Paralympics was still a few steps beyond just getting back healthy on the hill, but when Jepsen felt strong enough, she honed in on securing her qualification with laser focus.

"It's been pretty off and on over the last few seasons. I've had a large amount of injuries so for a long time, it was, 'Is it going to be better? Am I going to be able to ski at the level I was at before?'" she recalls. "Over the past year, it's been a very large focus of mine just to get better and then go into Korea. It's been awesome to finally put together a season."

Getting back into competitive shape has been an uphill battle, to say the least.

"I find with each injury, you lose a little bit more confidence and that ability to be a competent skier. Until Kimberley and the last few training days, I haven't skied that well in four or five years. It took that long to get everything working properly and everything working together," she says. "Coming off an ACL injury, you lose all the connections between your brain and your knees. Remembering how to ski takes six months. I was not only off snow for 11 months, but I was out-of-date for another five months."

Jepsen favours the speed events, where she hopes to snag a medal, but feels she could knock on the door in the technical events, hoping for a top-five finish.

Ethan Hess — Para-Nordic skiing

March 10 and 13 - 5 p.m. and March 16 - 7:40 p.m.

Pemberton sit-skier Ethan Hess may only be 18 years old, but qualifying for the Paralympic Games is clear evidence of his young life's work paying off.

"This is the thing that I've worked hardest for in my life up until this point, so it's a great feeling to have accomplished that," he says. "I'm already way more excited for this race than any of the World Cups, because it is the Paralympics. It's a bigger deal."

Hess, who was born with spina bifida, has been on an upswing on the IPC Para-Nordic World Cup circuit this season, posting the best results of his short career by hitting the top-20.

Hess has been dreaming of going to the Paralympics since the Sochi Games in 2014.

"I didn't have any specific goal until I was 14, but before then, I was a very competitive person. I always competed in other sports and I always felt a drive to be a lot better at it than I already was and to get to the highest level in what I was doing," he says. "The goal to improve myself and be at as high of a level as possible has always been there, and then it became centred on para-Nordic skiing and making the Paralympics."

The impetus came from Whistler Adaptive's Skiing is Believing program, as Hess started the sport and did some smaller races before becoming completely hooked.

Alex Cairns — Para-Alpine skiing

March 13 and 16 – 4:30 p.m.

Cairns is not only set to go to his first-ever Paralympics, he's also embarking on his first trip to Asia.

He'll be getting into action a little later in the competition, with an eye on the technical events.

"I'm not really a speed skier. I'm not there for the super-G and downhill," he says. "I'll race the giant slalom and the slalom."

At 26, Cairns might seem a little old to be making his Paralympic debut, but he got a late start as an alpine athlete, only beginning his training a decade ago.

On the B.C. team, his intensity has ramped up quickly with the Games in sight. However, it took a few years before Cairns felt he had a real shot at going; he used the Sochi Games as a measuring stick and realized four years of progression should put him on track for PyeongChang.

"Around 2014 was when I saw a lot of people who were around my level being put on the reserve to go," the Squamish resident says. "I knew that it was a few steps away and that was a big kick for that."

While his last couple of seasons haven't been ideal, Cairns has shown enough to the Alpine Canada brass to justify bringing him. He's hoping to reward their faith by putting down some of the best runs of his career.

"I didn't know if I was going to be picked. Based on how I was skiing, I wasn't sure if it was going to be worth bringing me at all," he says. "It was a tough season and a bit shaky, but this season, I've had really good training and some decent races. Nothing crazy yet, but it was enough.

"As long as I focus and get it right, I should be in it."

Cairns has been banking on his more experienced teammates to provide some advice, which he's eagerly heeding. Some of the coldest conditions the Olympics have ever seen have wreaked havoc on athletes' skis in PyeongChang, so Cairns says he and the team are overloading on gear — better to have it and not need it than need it and not have it.

John Leslie — Para-snowboard-cross and banked slalom

March 11 and 15 – 5:30 p.m.

The 25-year-old John Leslie isn't the oldest of the Whistler-connected contingent, but he's definitely the most experienced.

Leslie will be off to his second Games, and will have double the opportunity to medal with the addition of the banked slalom event this time around. He placed seventh in snowboard-cross in 2014 in Russia.

Originally from Arnprior, Ont., Leslie lost his left leg below the knee to cancer, diagnosed when he was 10.

Snowboard Canada announced the team on Feb. 21 and Pique was unable to connect with Leslie before press time. He is one of two returning snowboarders on the seven-person team and, in a release, said he is eager to take on a leadership role with a renewed focus heading into these Games.

"The main difference between Sochi and PyeongChang for me is the level of dedication. After Sochi, I put all my efforts into becoming the best Para snowboarder I could be. I have done all the preparation needed to podium and am excited to compete against the best in the world," Leslie says.

"I believe my previous experience has made me a better leader and more confident going into PyeongChang. I hope sharing my previous experience at the Games has stoked my teammates out and they know they can come to me with questions."