SSASS' first student with a cognitive disability 15 years later

Pictured: "The Frequent Niallers".  From left to right standing are Mom Janine, Niall, Leigh and Pete and kneeling in the front is Dad William.


Silver Star Adaptive Snowsports's first student with a cognitive disability, Niall Howard, participated in his first Carter Classic, 15 years after his first lesson.

The Carter Classic FUNdraiser 2016 - Saturday, 20th February 2016, Silver Star Mountain Resort hosted the annual Carter Classic Fun Alpine Slalom to raise money for the Silver Star Adaptive Snow Sports (SSASS). Teams comprising 3 - 4 members, including one with a special adaptive need, race the slalom course twice and the winners are those with the two most consistent times. This year, after years of arduous training, Niall Howard fronted "The Frequent Niallers", sponsored by Glassdrumman Cider, with guest appearances from Pete and Leigh (Aussie pilots in real life but "Minions", when their bosses aren't looking), and team captain, Irish Doctor, Janine O'Kane. The organisers had stressed that this was meant to be a FUN event, but with reputations on the line, the stress was clearly visible on the faces of our team as they stood on the starting line, staring down at the first gate on "Over The Hill" ski run and wondered how did we get here? 

Well it all began in 2000 when our family of 4 children and 2 adults visited Silver Star for the first time. We had travelled all the way from Ireland on the recommendation of our Canadian colleagues; "Go to Silver Star if you want some great skiing" was their unanimous choice of all the skiing resorts in North America. How could we ignore such a positive recommendation. Arriving into Kelowna Airport, we didn't know what to expect in this far flung corner of Canada, but I had a good feeling as we drove up the Okanagan in the Airport Transporter past the ice covered lakes and the lake-side farmhouses proudly displaying the Canadian flag.

Our three older kids quickly settled into their respective ski school groups and were soon at home skiing on the hill and eating lunchtime hotdogs in the Town Hall Eatery. It was a different story unfortunately for our youngest, aged 6. Niall has Autism and after a week in the regular ski school he was still on the magic carpet, skiing down to the bottom of the wee slope, falling over, and lying there eating snow until someone picked him up again. The instructors just didn't know how to relate to his special needs. We were despondent until we somehow heard about SSASS and met Andy Mather, one of the founding members. We had a chat with Andy about Niall's special needs and he agreed that Niall could join their programme. Within days Niall was skiing down the slopes on a harness following an instructor, with a second instructor controlling his speed and direction. It was a spectacular transformation! The SSASS is one of the reasons why we have been coming to Silver Star every winter for the last 15 years! 

 The Silver Star Adaptive Snow Sports teaches people with disabilities to ski, snowboard and sit ski, and enables them to experience the thrill of taking part in snow sports in this amazing winter wonderland that is Silver Star Mountain Resort, near Vernon, British Columbia, in Canada. SSASS organizes and runs a variety of programs for local and regional students, school children, visiting children and students from around the world, and students wishing to improve their advanced adaptive snow sports and racing technique in various disciplines. The programs are run by a group of dedicated, talented, enthusiastic, and friendly volunteers, who are simply motivated by their love of skiing and their desire to help disabled children and adults experience the thrill of snow sports. 

15 years ago, Niall was their first student with a cognitive disability. Andy and his team had to work out a way of getting Niall to ski with his limited ability to communicate and comprehend. For many this challenge would have been too much, the risks too great, the problems too many, but not for Andy and the other instructors. They worked out that Niall would mimic the movements of someone skiing in front, while an instructor behind could control his speed and direction with a harness. It worked, and by the end of the week Niall was happily skiing down green runs and the odd blue. And here we are after many great seasons of Niall skiing with the SSASS.

So Carter Classic Race day dawned. The snow covered ski runs on the front face sparkled in the early morning sun and the clear, blue skies above promised excellent ski conditions for today's big race. "The Frequent Niallers" met at the National Altitude Training Centre for registration at 9am,  collected their bibs, signed their waivers and posed for their team photo. Everything was set for an exciting morning;  18 teams were all gathered: 18 teams were all gathered; the Mountain Magic Show, The Bear Necessities, Energizer Bunny, Pinky and Brains, Edison's Swashbucklers, Spider Man, and many others. The race officials were all in place, flags, banners, fancy dress costumes, racers, free-stylers, sit-skiers, helpers, spectators, photographers. The race officials were all in place, flags, banners, fancy dress costumes, racers, free-stylers, sit-skiers, helpers, spectators, photographers. The slalom course had two lanes, side by side, with blue and red gates for the teams to race through. Competitors lined up and were called forward to the starting gate. 3, 2, 1 and then they were off down the course!

 The freestylers went down backwards, the racers knocked the flags off the gate-poles and sent up huge plumes of powdery snow as they stopped at the end, the sit-skiers spiralled through the course, the Necessities skied the course like downhill racers with a Bear in pursuit, and Christine from the Mountain Magic Show pulled white rabbits from her top hat as she skied down through the gates.

And at last it was "The Frequent Niallers" turn. Pete was first out of the gate like a F-16, followed by Leigh taking-off like a Dreamliner! Then it was Niall's turn. He was in the Red lane and pushed out of the starting gate to cheers of "Go Niall, Go", but after the first gate he crossed over and decided to follow a bear on skis, yes a bear on skis, down through the Blue gates, but finished safely with a time of 42 seconds. Team captain, Janine, followed and completed the first run.

A great ski down to the Comet with perfect snow, clear skies and great views to the Monashees in the distance. A team pep-talk to get the team into the "zone" and  straight into the second run, with the team skiing hard to get as close to their predicted time for their second run. Niall followed Al down the course, just in case that pesky bear appeared again, and finished in the correct lane to collect his liquorice from Lindsay.  

Our couple of weeks skiing had ended on a high note. Many thanks to Paul Lawson, SSASS Out Of Town Coordinator for organising the ski sessions for Niall this year. His skiing has really improved due to the extra time on the slopes and he has enjoyed skiing, telling jokes, singing songs and having fun with all of the instructors.  A very special thanks then to Lars, Paul, Laurie, Ron McLean, Chris, Lindsay, Gillian, Annette, Marianne, Pat, Christine, Rob, Jenny, Marnie, Moira, Laura, Ron Woitzik, and Nicole. What a list of great instructors! Thanks also to Laurie for organising the Carter Classic, to Peter Lawson the President, and one last word of thanks to Andy for teaching Niall to ski all those years