National Ability Center Athletes participate in cultural exchange in South Korea
March 22, 2018
In early March, several athletes training with the National Ability Center were given a unique opportunity — how would they like to be part of a cultural exchange program in which they teach adaptive skiing techniques to South Korean people with disabilities? The U.S. Department of State would foot the bill for the weeklong exchange. Naturally, athletes were thrilled at the prospect.
Madison Baumann, a skier with a visual impairment, was a little outside the age group the project was looking for — she was 24, while the limits were set at 16 to 22 — but she made the cut.
"When I got the email I had been accepted, I was over the moon," she said. "I was really looking forward to going on this trip for a number of reasons. First, a ski trip across the world. Second, we were going to get to go to the Paralympics, but I was really looking forward to spreading the joy of skiing to those who never thought they could ski before."
Michael O'Hearn, a candidate at the opposite end of the age group, at just 16, had a similar reaction to being accepted.
"It was most amazing news to hear when I was selected to take part in this amazing journey," he wrote in an email. "I was freaking out, dancing and screaming, which we also did in South Korea."
Sixteen Americans went on the trip — 12 athletes, four mentors and coaches — to train approximately 40 South Koreans with disabilities over three days, a press release said.
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The group trained at Phoenix Snow Park, the venue for freestyle skiing and snowboarding events in the 2018 Olympics and Paralympics, working through translators to talk to the would-be athletes about technique and negotiating their disabilities.
"We were going to South Korea to mentor other disabled athletes, people who had never skied before, and showing them what was possible and what wasn't possible with a disability," Baumann said. "We worked with Korean athletes of all ages with varying disabilities."
Baumann spent some of her time working with a man who had similar vision to her.
"Only, he had a visual acuity of 3 feet or less, so it was interesting to help him learn how to ski," she said. "Because with most people you show them — this is how you snowplow — but with him he couldn't see that, so you had to describe it to him."
She said the results varied. The visually impaired man, in particular, had a hard time.
Baumann recalled him saying, after an arduous lap down the ski hill, "My heart is telling me go but my eyes are telling me stop."
Others had the opposite reaction, like a man who started skiing while restrained by a pole that two instructors held across his path which he could hold and use to restrict his speed. Halfway down the hill, Baumann said, he abandoned the pole in favor of open terrain, and started picking up the fundamentals of skiing.
O'Hearn said he was paired with many athletes, but remembers one named John Yung in particular.
"John was a first-time skier, and was definitely a fast learner," he wrote in the email. "From not being able to walk up the mountain on his skis to ten minutes later skiing down the whole trail turning from side to side. It was incredible and heartwarming to see how much confidence and determination John had within him."
O'Hearn wrote that it was just as incredible to feel like a part of that process.
"I know skiing is in John's future, and with John's level of willpower, maybe one day he'll race," O'Hearn wrote.
While in South Korea, the Americans attended the Paralympic Games' opening ceremony, the U.S-versus-Japan sled hockey game, a downhill event and snowboard cross races, "where we screamed and screamed for Team USA," O'Hearn said.
They also participated in team-building exercises with the South Koreans each afternoon.
"The whole thing worked," Baumann said. "It was an incredible trip, and we had so many moments where we were building friendships and relationships off the snow."
O'Hearn said it was an experience he would never forget, and speculated that his South Korean counterparts finished the program feeling the same way.
He hoped the program left them with "a boost of confidence and knowing they can accomplish anything they set their minds to."