Adaptive Water-Skiing Knows No Limits

June 1, 2013, Department, by Whitney Oftedahl

A therapeutic recreation program in Colorado celebrates 30 years of inclusive sport.It’s been 30 years since the first adaptive water-skier skimmed across the glassy water of the Boulder Reservoir tethered to instructor Jim Ziegler’s boat. The City of Boulder, Colorado’s EXPAND (EXciting Programs, Adventures and New Dimensions) therapeutic recreation program provides opportunities for individuals with disabilities to gain new recreation skills that will enhance their overall well-being and improve their quality of life. This water-ski program provides a unique and safe opportunity for individuals with varying degrees of abilities and disabilities to engage in a recreational activity that would otherwise not be possible. Individuals with spinal-cord injuries, amputations, brain injuries, multiple sclerosis, muscular dystrophy, cerebral palsy and visual impairments currently participate in the program every year.

Jim Ziegler, a certified instructor for the National Sports Center for the Disabled (NSCD) since 1978, founded the adaptive water-ski program in Boulder, Colorado, at the Boulder Reservoir in June of 1983. Initially, Ziegler used his own boat, a handful of volunteers and his personal equipment. As equipment evolved and demand increased, he found an eager partner with the City of Boulder Parks and Recreation Department’s EXPAND program, which began supporting Ziegler’s initiative in 1988. As the program continued to grow, there was a need for additional funding for the water-ski program to operate, and EXPAND Beyond, Inc. was formed to provide funding for equipment to leverage the City of Boulder’s financial support. EXPAND Beyond, Inc. achieved 501(c)(3) status in March 2007.

“We’ve learned a lot over 30 years, and we keep improving the program and equipment based on our experience and the needs of our community,” says Ziegler, who is still very active with the program.

The program runs every Tuesday morning from June to August and serves people with physical disabilities, no matter their capability level. Each participant’s ability, past experience and individual needs are all taken into consideration as instructors custom-fit a program to each water-skier. Before a participant enters the water, time is set aside for the individual to be custom-fitted for an adaptive ski or wakeboard, which ensures their safety and enjoyment of each water session.

For individuals with higher needs, three watercraft and a minimum of six volunteers support each individual on and in the water. After settling into a specially designed seat on a custom sit-ski, the skier is carefully placed in the water and assisted by at least one volunteer in the water at all times. A “starter” supports the skier in the water and drags behind as the skier is towed out to ensure he or she gets a clean start. Two volunteers on personal watercraft are within a few feet of the skier during takeoff. One is a rescue volunteer who is ready to jump in and support the skier at the first sign of a fall. The other is the starter volunteer, who, after launch, gets into the chase boat and follows behind to repeat the process should the skier fall during the two trips around the 700-acre Boulder Reservoir.

“Providing and experiencing the thrill for our clients to enjoy the freedom of water-skiing when many of them are confined to a wheelchair is one of the most satisfying volunteer activities I get the privilege to provide,” says Rodger Stewart, president of EXPAND Beyond, Inc. “The board of EXPAND Beyond, Inc. is actively recruiting veterans with physical disabilities returning from Iraq and Afghanistan to help in their recovery from the war.”

The program serves 15 to 25 people each week and is supported largely by EXPAND Beyond, Inc., community contributions, fundraising events like the EXPAND Duck Race and the contributions of nearly 30 volunteers who dedicate their Tuesday mornings to this program.

“I have been working for the EXPAND program for the past 16 years, and I will admit, the adaptive water-ski program is my all-time favorite,” says Cory Lasher, certified therapeutic recreational specialist (CTRS) and City of Boulder Parks and Recreation EXPAND therapeutic program coordinator. “Every year, I am filled with gratitude for all the volunteers who truly care about and support this program. They are the most fantastic and genuinely altruistic volunteers I have ever met. Seeing the smiles on all the participants’ faces as they come back to the dock and hearing the laughter and chatter every Tuesday morning really brings me joy. It feels like family, and it really doesn’t get any better than that.”

Click here to see a video of the program.

Whitney Oftedahl
is the Marketing and Communications Administrative Specialist for the City of Boulder Parks and Recreation Department.