National Ability Center: national in name only
March 25, 2014
On page C7 of last Saturday’s Park Record, a half-page ad congratulated 18 athletes for their achievements at the 2014 Winter Paralympic Games in Sochi, Russia.
The 18 athletes represented nine different countries including Belgium, Russia, Ukraine, Spain, Australia, Chile and Turkey. But they had one thing in common: All had trained, at one time or another, at Park City’s National Ability Center.
"We call ourselves the National Ability Center, but its ‘national’ depending on whatever country you go to and you’re in,’ said Jess Hilton Roising, competition program and events manager at the center. "We’re definitely a global organization."
From a small recreation program founded by Meeche White and Peter Badewitz in 1985, the National Ability Center has grown to include elite athletes from all over the world. Nothing illustrates that growth better than the list of 18 international athletes competing on the Paralympic stage.
One of the individual success stories in that group is that of Nicole Roundy, a Utah native who lost a leg to cancer when she was eight years old. Fitted with a prosthetic leg, she started snowboarding and became accomplished enough to earn an invitation to the national championships in 2006. She returned in 2007 but, to her dismay, showed no improvement from the year before. So, in 2008, she approached the National Ability Center, looking for an opportunity to improve her skills.
"They didn’t have a program for snowboarding at the time, but they were still very willing to help me in any way that they could, getting funding and providing me with an opportunity to get on the snow," Roundy said. "And it kind of grew from there. We had other athletes that were interested in getting involved and competing on a national level that came out to train out here because of the existence of a program that was willing to work with them."
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In 2011 the NAC formed a partnership with Team Utah, an elite able-bodied snowboarding program that has helped coach developing athletes to become nationally ranked contenders.
"Out of the 10 Team USA snowboard athletes [at Sochi] they took 10 five of them were currently training with National Ability Center/Team Utah," Roising said. "Two had started with National Ability Center/Team Utah. And then, I’d say, almost half of the competitive field of foreign athletes had "
" some connection to the program," Roundy said, finishing Roising’s sentence. One of those 10 athletes was Roundy, now ranked fifth in the world in boardercross.
The partnership with Team Utah is one of many benefits of the NAC’s Park City location, according to Gail Loveland, the NAC’s executive director. She also points to the proximity of the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association, Snyderville Basin Recreation, and the many other athletic facilities in the Park City area.
"This town is a hotbed for high-level and elite athletes, and we’re thankful we can help support those elite athletes of all abilities," she said.
"I say pretty regularly that I talk to probably about five families a month that either buy a second home here or move here because of the resources that the NAC provides, and then certainly that our community provides as well, to support their family member who has a disability. It’s pretty wild."
Roundy offers, from the athletes’ perspective, another advantage: "You’re not very far from medical care. I’ve met several other athletes that have medical problems that need to be addressed, but if they’re in the middle of nowhere with the program, they don’t have the access. So it’s important to be a part of a large community that has everything close by."
It’s clear from Roundy’s expression that she didn’t live up to her own expectations at Sochi. She finished eighth in boardercross. But with some prompting she acknowledged that she has an above-knee amputation, which put her at a significant disadvantage when compared to the seven who finished ahead of her.
"In that competition there was not an above-knee amputee that was anywhere near the top," she said. "There are different types of courses, and there are particular courses that we do really well on and there are other courses that we don’t. And this just happened to be one of those courses that we don’t do very well on."
Although the Paralympics in Sochi coincided with the Russian occupation of Crimea, the events did not appear to affect the relationship between the Russian and Ukrainian athletes, according to Loveland who, along with Roundy and Roising, was part of the U.S. delegation.
"There were some Ukrainian athletes that, during the medal ceremonies, they covered their medals," Loveland said. "But, again, when we were all there at the medal ceremonies and people were cheering, we were surrounded by Russians and they were cheering for Ukrainians that were getting medals just as much as they were cheering for their own country."
Roising said that supportive atmosphere even extended to the sled-hockey game, in which the United States beat Russia for the gold medal.
"The following day and the entire night, everybody that was Russian came up to you, if they knew you were American it was pretty easy to point us out, especially with Gail’s pants they would come up and they would say ‘congratulations’ with the most sincerity. It was really cool," Roising said.
It turned out that an NAC volunteer had spotted, at the Christian Center, a pair of sweatpants decorated with American flags and gave them to Loveland to wear in Sochi. She dutifully wore them to the sled-hockey game.
"I’m sure we’ve got a picture of this, not that I want it published," she said.
Loveland said the Paralympics appear to be having a profound impact on the host country. "When any Olympic bid is out there, they now are required to also host the Paralympics, which means in that home country they have to focus on accessibility in their facility design that will be long-lasting," she said. "They also have to celebrate disability. Both accessibility and the celebration of individuals with disabilities in Russia were not very prevalent. And it’s really made clear that that needs to be part of the Games."
Roundy noted that Sochi was built around accessibility. "Sochi is considered the first accessible city in Russia, from the transportation to the facilities to having elevators, ramps, just the facilities accessible. … It’s just the way that the city (Sochi) was designed and planned out," she said.
"What we understand from their closing ceremonies is that they’ve made a commitment to continue to push accessibility throughout the country," Roising added.
Loveland said the Paralympic Games are also helping to change attitudes around the world.
"Country by country they’re pushing this level of not hiding individuals with disabilities — there are many countries that a disability is looked at as a curse — but rather celebrating, which is what we’re about at the National Ability Center, each individual’s unique abilities and focusing on them, and then making sure that those individuals have the same rights and access to their community and to recreation that others have."
Loveland said that the National Ability Center is always looking for volunteers for everything from answering phones to working as guides for visually impaired skiers. For details call 435-649-3991 and ask for Sarah Jones.
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