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Disabled skiers have it down on Mount Spokane

Each week the Mount Spokane Nordic Ski Area swarms with skiers of all ages and abilities. From toddlers to seniors, from beginners to competitive champions, cross-country skiing is an inclusive sport.

For more than 25 years, Spokane Parks and Recreation Department has sponsored a cross-country ski program for children and adults 12 years and older with developmental disabilities. Staffed by volunteers, the program operates in cooperation with Mount Spokane Nordic Ski Area.

“We have 14 skiers enrolled, and the program runs for eight weeks,” said Alice Busch, coordinator for Spokane Parks Therapeutic Recreation Services. “We take them up to Mount Spokane in a van and ski with them.”

Ten of those skiers, dubbed the Blue Waxers, will travel to Leavenworth in March to compete in the Special Olympics. Several members compete each year in Langlauf Ski Race at Mount Spokane.

On a recent Saturday, the group of rosy-cheeked skiers made their way to the Selkirk Lodge for a sack lunch after a spending a couple of hours on the trails.

Chris Jameson, 15, settled himself at a picnic table. “There’s a lot of hills, you know,” he confided. “But I practiced hard.” Jameson has been skiing with the group for three weeks.

“I like to be by myself on the trail, so I don’t worry about people colliding,” said Jameson. Then he gestured to the reporter’s notebook. “Hopefully, this is front-page stuff!”

According to the Saturday ski program supervisor, Dave Bentz, the enjoyment that both skiers and volunteers derive from their weekly outings is indeed newsworthy. Nine years ago, he discovered the program while looking for a winter activity to do with his son, Jeremy Bentz-Ashbaugh. “I decided to check this out and next thing I knew I was skiing full time.”

Bentz-Ashbaugh, 21, stopped to take off his skis outside the lodge and beamed when he talked about the program. “It’s a lot of fun that my dad gets to be in charge of the skiers,” he said. “My mom even makes treats for us.”

Those snacks apparently are well-received. Another skier slid to a stop nearby and called out, “Hey Jeremy! Did you bring us any treats?”

That camaraderie is draw for many participants. Charlie Vandeventer has skied with his son Kevin for more than 18 years and said it’s been great for Kevin to get out and socialize. Kevin, 37, is also a champion skate skier. He’s won many gold, silver and bronze medals in the Special Olympics.

Skate skiers typically use shorter, narrower skis and the technique is different from classic cross-country skiing. Kevin Vandeventer explained, “Skating uses more muscles – you’re pushing from side to side. It’s much faster.”

His dad said that Kevin introduced skate skiing to several of the other skiers and enjoys helping them improve their technique.

Zipping down the groomed trails can be intimidating, but not for 50-year-old Penny Cannon. “I’m not scared,” she said. “But it gets kinda cold going downhill.”

The volunteers appear to have as much fun as the students. “It’s rewarding,” said 15-year volunteer Dave Tewel. “As a skier, it’s great to give something back.”

Tewel said he’s enjoyed watching the progress of the skiers. “They come out and learn and have fun and now some of them are surpassing me!”

Potential volunteers take a one-day training class. Bentz said the response has been good. “Right now we’ve got almost one-on-one help with our skiers.” More volunteers means more skiers can participate.

Spokane Parks provides the skis, poles and transportation while participants bring a sack lunches and enthusiasm.

As volunteer Randy Schueneman watched the skiers chatting around the tables in the lodge, he said being with this group inspires him. “They don’t get discouraged – they just keep working at it,” he said. “I get so much out of this, I can’t believe that I don’t have to pay to do it!”