It would be hard to create a more appropriate setting for miracles than the gently sloping Fraser Valley and its surrounding peaks. These mountains in the central Colorado Rockies, five miles west of the Continental Divide, have long stood higher than most places on earth. But for the past quarter of a century they have also come to represent the place where the land levels out.
The man behind this apparent moving of mountains is Hal O'Leary, a Canadian-born ski instructor whose dedication and persistence have made Winter Park the home of the largest program in the world for disabled skiers. The program was started 25 years ago as a favor to a group of amputees from The Children's Hospital in Denver, but under O'Leary's direction it evolved into the National Sports Center for the Disabled. Each year more than 2,500 people who have any of about 40 kinds of physical and mental disabilities descend upon the Winter Park Resort—a 1,358-acre area leased by the U.S. Forest Service to the not-for-profit Winter Park Recreational Association—to learn how to ski.
O'Leary, a 57-year-old ski enthusiast who quit an office job in New York City in 1962 to move west, stumbled onto his life's work by chance. He found a job as a ski instructor with the Winter Park Ski School but was unsatisfied. "There was no return in teaching able-bodied skiers," he says. During an instructors' meeting in January 1970, O'Leary's boss asked for volunteers to teach 23 kids with missing limbs to ski. O'Leary, who had never worked with the disabled, raised his hand. "I was scared to death," he says. "No one else volunteered."
Though people with disabilities had been on skis in Europe at least as far back as the 1940s, there were no established teaching methods or programs for disabled skiers, and only makeshift equipment was available. This didn't deter O'Leary, who began poring over medical textbooks. He took his newly acquired knowledge to a ski shop in Winter Park, where he spent hours experimenting on discarded skis and poles, drilling holes, fastening pulleys, attaching braces.
"He really seemed to understand our specific disabilities," says Ri Armstrong, 34, a below-the-knee single amputee who attended O'Leary's first class. "By the end of the day we were all actually skiing."
As the program—which ran for eight consecutive Tuesdays—began to make local headlines, other disabled people starting calling. O'Leary, who was expected to continue teaching able-bodied skiers, was soon filling his schedule with free classes for disabled students. "I just couldn't turn them away," O'Leary says. "I could see what a difference it was making in their lives. People were leaving here saying, 'Hal, I used to hate my body. Now I feel graceful.... I'm moving.... I can feel the wind in my face.' "
In 1974, after neglecting his duties toward the able-bodied for two years, O'Leary was fired by the ski school. But he persuaded the board of directors of Winter Park, a nonprofit resort, to take over the program from the ski school. For the next three years he operated out of a broom closet on the second floor of Winter Park's ski lodge. Today 35 full-time employees and more than 1,000 volunteers staff the program.
"Once [disabled] people see they can ski," says Mike Rantz, 40, who has cerebral palsy, "it allows them to go back to the real world and say, 'Yeah, I can do this, too.' " Rantz says that learning to ski gave the him confidence to marry and start a family. He has been a fulltime instructor for the disabled at Winter Park for 12 years, is married and has two children. "Even my speech has improved," he says.
O'Leary has helped design much of the equipment that enables even the most seriously disabled people to ski, including the outrigger (a crutch with a 12-inch ski on the end) and the trombone (a metal attachment that holds two skis parallel but slides to allow each to move independently). Inducted into the U.S. National Ski Hall of Fame last October, O'Leary has set up programs for disabled skiers on four continents and coached two Paralympic teams.
"It's absolutely mesmerizing to watch him," says Gwen Allard, 57, who runs the disabled-skiing program at Ski Windham in Windham, N.Y., which is modeled after O'Leary's program. "The knowledge and the kindness just come pouring out. Without him there would be no disabled skiing in this country."