By CHRISTINA RITCHIE ROGERS
Robbie Parks, 45, glides, jumps and flips through the wake on his board when he’s in the water. But when he’s on land, it’s a different story – Mr. Parks has been in a wheelchair for almost 30 years.
He broke his neck in a car accident at age 16 after drinking and driving.
Before the accident, he water-skied almost every day, he said. After the accident, he wasn’t sure he’d ever get back on the water, let alone on skis.
But then he started working with an adaptive sports program that provides opportunities for people with injuries and physical disabilities to participate in sports.
“It’s that same feeling of freedom,” he said – like the one he remembers from when he was young.
This summer, Mr. Parks is training to compete on the World Team for adaptive water skiing. He competes in three events: wake boarding, slalom, and jumping. He’s a participant in the adaptive sports program at Carolina Rehabilitation.
Every Thursday during the summer, Carolinas Rehabilitation partners with the Lake Norman YMCA in Cornelius and about a dozen volunteers to offer individuals with disabilities the chance to water-ski on Lake Norman.
Participants in the Adaptive Sports and Adventure Program range in age from 3 years to 74 years, recreational therapist Erin Kuehn said, and have a wide range of abilities. Some were born with conditions like cerebral palsy or spina bifita, others have sustained brain or spinal cord injuries, and others have had amputations.
“As long as they have the desire, we can find a way for them to ski,” Ms. Kuehn said.
The Adaptive Sports program provides boards and skis and various attachments for each so that they may be customized to fit the size and abilities of the each skier. Beginners start on a “freedom board,” Ms. Keuhn said, which has a seat in the center and outrigger attachments that look like two large blue skis, set low and wide for stability. More advanced skiiers graduate to slalom boards or trick boards, which are like wake boards.
Rhet Roberts, 5, the son of Jeff and Telea Roberts of Matthews, took his first solo ride on a freedom board Thursday. He was secured to a board in the center of the apparatus with a “cage” for more back support. Rhett has cerebral palsy, and struggles with balance, so the cage helps him to stay upright.
For added safety, volunteers followed Rhett while he was skiing. Had he let go of the rope or tipped over in the water, the volunteers were just a few feet away and ready to jump in and right him. But Rhett had a perfect run, and got back to the dock with the smile to prove it.
“It’s a very empowering program that allows people to earn independence,” recreational therapist Kina Afkin said. “Seeing people who have been told their whole life they can’t do something get out there and do this – their faces just light up,” she said.
The therapists and volunteers are careful only to help when they’re asked to help, she said, and let the skiers do as much as they can on their own.
Lake Norman YMCA provides the water access for the program and the boat, and volunteers work together with therapists from Carolinas Rehabilitation to man the boat and the jet skis, to help prepare skiers and to manage the equipment. Brian Bridgeford, of Statesville, has been driving the boat for almost 8 years. After his first day volunteering, he was hooked, he said.
“Some of the kids would never have the opportunity to experience the lake in this way,” Sherri Little said. Her daughter, April Elizabeth, 9, skied for the second time Thursday. “This makes their world bigger,” she said.
WANT TO LEARN MORE? OR TO SKI?
To learn more about the adaptive sports and adventure program or to schedule a time to ski, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 704-355-1062.