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Snow Challenge draws athletes of all abilities

Saturday, April 2, 2016 : From Team Jans 1 Monte Meier participates in the National Ability Center Ability Snow Challenge at Park City Mountain. Photo by Jeff Swinger

National Ability Center event held on Autism Awareness Day

The costumes matched the sky on Saturday at Park City Mountain as skiers of all ages and abilities gathered under bluebird conditions for the National Ability Center’s Ability Snow Challenge.

This year’s event was held on World Autism Awareness Day. Blue is the color used to raise awareness for autism, so participants were encouraged to wear blue costumes for the “Light It Up Blue” theme.

The race featured able-bodied skiers and snowboarders racing alongside paraplegic athletes, amputees and athletes with other physical and mental conditions.

The diversity of the group is what draws people like Matthew Geriak to the event. Geriak lost his left leg to cancer in 1988. He said he enjoys coming to the Snow Challenge to meet people with stories similar to his.

“This event is awesome,” he said. “It’s nice to come out here and have a little fun and be on snow and get a little bit of racing in.”

For Geriak, the National Ability Center is a special organization — one that saved his ski career.

“I was a freestyle skier,” he said. “It was more bumps and jumps and stuff like that. I was never really a technical skier until I lost my leg and then I started getting into that. [The NAC] is the first place that got me back on the snow. My roots in disabled skiing are here. [Skiing] was my rehab. I didn’t do any other rehab — I came here.”

In addition to Paralympic medalists, the event featured former Olympic skiers like Erik Schlopy and former Major League Baseball player Robin Jennings racing alongside the athletes in the NAC programs.

Jennings said he is always happy to help the NAC in any way he can.

“My daughter, Ava, has a neurological disorder,” he said. “She’s been in the program since she was four. We probably would’ve moved from Park City eight years ago had it not been for the NAC. The NAC gave my middle daughter a home and it’s been amazing ever since.”

Jennings said watching his daughter ski wouldn’t be possible without the National Ability Center. He added that seeing her compete in a race like the Snow Challenge in front of a supportive crowd reminds him of the feeling he got when 40,000 people were cheering him on during his baseball career.

“When you see an 8-to-13-year-old kid who has a disability come down from four gates up and cross the finish line, they feel like we felt when we were at the height of our careers,” he said. “That’s amazing. My daughter will talk about beating her friend in the competition today for the next eight months — that’s how excited she is. But none of those kids would have an opportunity to be on this mountain without the NAC.”

Standing at the start of the race course brought Geriak back to his competition days, he said. He enjoyed the feeling of competing in a ski race again.

“It’s been 23 years since I’ve had a race like this,” he said. “It’s a good feeling. I was rusty.”

But, he added, the race wasn’t the most important part of the weekend.

“It’s not about skiing at all — it’s about supporting a great organization like this,” he said. “Everyone has a different walk of life and it’s a great place to hang out and talk with people.”

For more information about the National Ability Center and its various programs, visit www.discovernac.org.

Adam Spencer, The Park Record – 04/05/2016

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