The rate of progress has been widespread and steady when it comes to the local leader in adaptive sports, Achieve Tahoe. Fifty-five years ago, when the nonprofit was founded, “adaptive sports equipment did not exist,” as per the website. But today, the organization gives around 3,000 lessons in a normal year, has programs from sailing to climbing to water skiing, and employs state-of-the-art equipment such as “sip and puff” breath-controlled Tetra sit-skis.
“The goal with our programs is to reflect for our participants why someone would come to Tahoe, and then continue to mirror that experience, said Haakon Lang-Ree, executive director of Achieve Tahoe.
The organization is well-known for — and started exclusively with — adaptive skiing programs. It was in the 1980s that summer offerings were added.
“There are so many more positives that we get to work with in the summer,” Lang-Ree said. “It’s warmer, cheaper, better access, there’s more daylight, and there’s more places to do activities.”
Currently they offer programs — most of which still have openings available — from mid-July on for equestrian, climbing, archery, sailing, water skiing, climbing, hiking, and paddle sports.
Often carried out in partnership with other organizations, these activities are dependent on volunteers and utilize dozens of sponsors, evidencing the deep network that unites for the cause of adaptive sports. The Kawai’ulu ‘O Tahoe Outrigger Canoe Club, for example, helps out for several of the summer sports days on Donner Lake, exposing kids, adults, and senior citizens to the magic of splashing around in the hot sun.
Come one, come all
Achieve Tahoe has scant limits on which people with disabilities can try out their programs. You don’t even have to be in shape. Interested folks can come directly “off the couch,” as part of its goal to reach as many people as possible. The group has worked with people from ages 4 to 98, and welcomes all types of disabilities: cognitive, emotional, behavioral, and physical. This could mean volunteers and staff members are working with people who are amputees, have cerebral palsy, are blind, are autistic, and more, all in one day. This wide approach pays off for the participants who can make it work.
“I feel good about the activities; they improve my day and I learn new skills on the paddleboard or kayaking,” says Michaela Welch, 25, who has cerebral palsy.
Achieve Tahoe staff members are working to increase their capacity to serve more people by ramping up programs, always hunting for volunteers, and working on new sports and activities to offer. On the other hand, they know they have barely scratched the surface in terms of potential clientele.
“The demand is always higher than what we are able to serve,” Lang-Ree said.
But they have success by engaging with one individual at a time. Aaron Freeman, 16, was born with a rare form of epilepsy called Lennox-Gastaut syndrome, which restricts his movement and affects his cognitive and physical abilities.
Aaron’s mom, Jennifer, is grateful for the experience of having trained instructors and volunteers with him on the mountain, through Achieve Tahoe. “Aaron didn’t get to participate in things that other kids got to do,” said Jennifer, who adds he has two older siblings who are competitive skiers.
She said Aaron has a joyful time skiing at Alpine Meadows and looks to improve to new and more advanced areas of the mountain. “It’s not just a one-shot deal,” she said. “Over the winters his skills have improved notably.” She has hopes that down the road she will be able to ski one-on-one with Aaron again, as she could when he was little. Aaron is also giving summer programs — sailing and archery, specifically — another try this year, as they were canceled last year due to wildfire smoke.
Societal restraints, individual success
As coverage on people with disabilities increases — seen most prominently in the summer and winter Paralympics — this can increase awareness greatly. However, as Achieve Tahoe communications and programs manager Josephine Cormier points out, sometimes the focus on the elite athletes doesn’t have as much impact on the person who doesn’t relate to that level of sport. “We need to make people with disabilities of all athletic levels realize that there is a place in outdoor recreation for them,” she said.
When discussing barriers, a common topic in this world, the most pertinent one is society’s perception about what people can do, according to Lang-Ree.
“There are surely economic and logistical barriers to overcome, but the main issue is how society views people with disabilities,” he said. “Technology is changing far faster than societal barriers, and ideally society will catch up.”
Conversely, physical barriers are virtually never a factor, running contrary to what might be the public perception. “Have we ever turned someone back because they can’t do it? No, we haven’t,” Lang-Ree said.
Programs are designed to be incorporated into the Tahoe environs in a highly visible manner, among and a part of the general population. This is not by coincidence.
“One of the big things we can do is have a more visible presence with a wide diversity of participants,” Cormier said. “This will help make people aware that anyone can participate in adaptive outdoor recreation.” She cites as an example the watersports that are carried out on Donner Lake’s busy West End Beach.
Certainly, the intrinsic value of movement, nature, and exertion can’t be overstated. With its mental and physical benefits, the deeper intent goes beyond the hours of outdoor recreation that participants experience.
“It’s not about teaching lefts and rights; it’s about other parts of life,” explained Lang-Ree. “We want to help people continue pursuing their passions in other areas of life in their hometown, and they can use the skills they develop here to do that.”
He sees the overall landscape of adaptive sports as improving. He joined as a volunteer ski instructor in 1992 and has thus been able to see 30 years of rewarded people. The volunteers, too, are often deeply and positively impacted by the experience, he notes.
“The biggest hurdle isn’t money; it’s people not being willing it to try it,” Lang-Ree said. “But the message is that you gotta come try this stuff. No matter who you are, this is for you.”
Learn more about Achieve Tahoe and find a calendar of events at achievetahoe.org.