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NAC opens eyes

All across the National Ability Center’s 26 acres on Saturday, there were the smiling faces of people who could hardly believe what they were seeing.

For the fifth consecutive year, the NAC held an open house for community members and parents interested in observing the staggering array of activities offered to disabled athletes. The nonprofit’s climbing wall, ropes course, archery range, equestrian facility, assisted cycling and sled hockey programs were tested and demonstrated at no cost to visitors.

"People, at first, when they hear about sled hockey, are like, ‘That’s got to be super slow and boring,’ and yet anybody who comes out to watch the games immediately gets hooked because it’s such a blast," said outreach manager Ryan Jenson. "You can really see the physical ability that it takes to do these kinds of things."

Free Ben & Jerry’s ice cream was provided at the event, and hot dogs and cold drinks sold for just 50 cents apiece. One booth of volunteers played wheelchair rugby, while NAC bigwigs took turns sitting – and splashing – in a dunk tank. Mountain Town Music provided tunes, and kids could take a turn in the bouncing castle, get their face painted, or dance around a drum circle.

Equestrian program resource manager Jan Drake told the story of the NAC’s newest acquisition, Token, to riveted kids and their parents. Donated to the NAC by the American Gypsy Horse Angel Foundation, Token was bred and trained for his therapeutic riding ability. He met the public with a brave face Saturday.

"He’s settling in great," Drake said. "This is his first day out and about with the public and he’s fine. Wheelchairs have come up to him, walkers – nothing seems to faze him. That’s their temperament. They just don’t get afraid of things."

Twelve breeds are represented in the NAC stables, each used to teach disabled riders a variety of physical and mental lessons. Gumdrop, a miniature mustang in a red halter, was also on hand for her first open-house session.

Another open-house debutant – this one on two legs – Sue Greenberg is the director of athlete development for the NAC and works with ski racers in the winter and cyclists in the summer. A highlight for her was watching a girl on a hand cycle show off her newfound skills to her parents after a week of day camp.

"It’s all about seeing the kids jump on equipment and smile because they’ve never had any success riding bicycles before, and now they get on something that’s geared to them and they can do it," said Greenberg, who estimates that hand and recumbent (feet-only) cycles cost between $3,000 and $5,000 and are mostly donated. "You can fly."

The NAC also showcased its Paralympic Experience program, which introduces athletes aged 12-18 to Paralympic sports. Paralympians Greg Shaw, Monte Meier and Erin Popovich were on hand to show off their hardware and meet interested youth.

"I try to meet them all, because if I can help one kid realize that he can do something great, it makes a big difference in my life," said Shaw, a gold medalist in sled hockey at the 2010 Games who got his start skiing with the NAC. "Without the NAC, there’d be lots of kids who didn’t know they could achieve their goals."

Recently retired, Meier made the trip to five Paralympics as a stand-skier on the U.S. Alpine Team and served as the flag bearer for the United States in Vancouver. A similar organization for disabled athletes in Minnesota gave Meier his first taste of disabled skiing and allowed him to fulfill a lifelong passion for competition. Few disabled sports programs compare to the breadth offered by the NAC, he said.

"This is a one-stop shop," said Meier, who also lives in Park City. "There’s not enough hours in the day to take advantage of all the fun stuff that there is to do here. It’s pretty cool. Whatever their interest is, there’s something for them here."

Popovich is one of the world’s most decorated disabled athletes, with 14 gold medals and numerous world and Paralympic swimming records to her credit. She made the trip to Park City from Fort Collins, Colo. – smack dab in the middle of the competitive season – to lend the NAC a helping hand for the U.S. Paralympic ambassador program.

"It’s amazing," said Popovich, who was born with a genetic growth disorder. "I had no idea that a place like this existed with so many different sports and abilities and resources. To have it all focused in one area where kids can come and enjoy multiple things at one time is awesome. It gives them a real flavor of what experiences they can have later down the road if they want to continue to stay involved with it."

Making more people aware of the NAC’s vast resources is job No. 1 for incoming executive director Gail Loveland, who beat out 117 other applicants after Dale Schoon stepped down earlier this year

"(Popovich is) in our Paralympic program, she’s gone through and become this fantastic athlete, and she wasn’t fully aware of what the NAC could offer," Loveland said. "A lot of people have heard about us, but there’s a lot more opportunity for us and the Park City community to really bring the NAC up as a role model in adaptive recreation."

It was a busy day for Loveland, who scrambled around to meet with donors and promote the many facets of the NAC on a hot July day. She said that, aside from not having as much time as she’d like to enjoy the outdoors, her first days in the position have been smooth. All she has to do when she needs extra motivation is look outside her office, she said, to see the people her work is helping.

"Individuals with disabilities have so many strengths that you just don’t realize," Loveland said. "Whether it’s a child with Down syndrome who is just that person that I know will give me a hug every time I see him, which just keeps me smiling all day, or someone who is dealing with a physical challenge that they have overcome. For me, it’s just an incredible inspiration. I get as much back from this job as I give, so that’s pretty important."

For more information on the mission and opportunities promoted by the National Ability Center, visit http://www.discovernac.org.


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