Photo courtesy Adaptive Spirit.

We’re coming up on the 25th anniversary of Adaptive Spirit, an annual telecom industry fundraiser that has generated millions of dollars to support the US Paralympic Ski Team. A quarter-century is an impressive run for any fundraiser, but Adaptive Spirit merits an extra tip of the cap: It literally saved the US Paralympic Ski Team from oblivion back in the mid-1990s. In the years since, Adaptive Spirit has helped Team USA roll up more Winter Paralympic medals than any other nation, while promoting accessibility and inclusivity throughout the winter sports industry.

The event grew out of a friendship between Steve Raymond and Bob Meserve, a couple of ski buddies who got to know each other in Vail in the early 1980s. Fast-forward 10 years or so, and Meserve — paralyzed from the waist down in a ski accident — was racing for what was then known as the US Disabled Ski Team. Raymond, meanwhile, had become a regional sales exec for ESPN.

Raymond picks up the story:

How did Adaptive Spirit get its start?
In 1994 the US Disabled Ski Team lost Subaru as a sponsor, so they were facing a big funding shortfall. Bob had let me know there was a strong possibility they were going to have to disband. I was working at ESPN at the time, and I had a colleague at Time Warner Cable who knew the head coach of the team, a guy named Stefan Heinsczh. He told her the same thing, they were in danger of folding. We both had personal connections with the Disabled Ski Team, so we thought, “Why don’t we try to save this team and give them the funding they need to compete?”

We put together a three-day marketing and networking event, which was then called Ski Tam. We got HBO and Disney and other big names in our business to sponsor it, and I got Warren Miller to do the keynote. We raised a quick hundred grand, and that saved the team.

What do you think explains the staying power of this event? 25 years is a pretty good run. Why do you think people have stayed committed to this for so long?
I would say there are a couple of things. Number one, a lot of leaders in our industry support this event because they’ve fallen in love with the athletes. These people are passionate about their sport, they’re natural risk-takers — they’re just fun to hang out with.

And then on the industry side, there are 1300 people from the telecommunications industry who show up in a given year. We get a lot of leaders and decision makers, as well as people who want to network with them. So it’s an opportunity to do business, ski, and spend time with the athletes. You combine all those things, and put people in a relaxed atmosphere where they’re having fun and raising a boatload of money to support the team, and that seems to have worked for 25 years.

It’s also a family event. Lots of people bring their spouses and kids. At the opening reception on Thursday we do a kids’ bingo where they go seek out the athletes. They get to know about adaptive sports. They see amputees. They see visually impaired people. They see the technology of a sit ski. It’s a pretty cool experience.

How do the able-bodied kids react to meeting these athletes?
The younger kids are more fascinated by the technology. They see an athlete take a prosthetic off, or they sit in a sit ski. They’re curious about how it all works. For some of the older kids who haven’t had the experience of being around a person with a disability, I think it’s eye opening. They start to see past the disability. They see the athlete.

Photo courtesy Adaptive Spirit.

In the United States there hasn’t been as much of an embrace of para athletics as in other countries. Do you think we’re starting to catch up?
I’m pretty close to this because of my background. Gary Zenkel, the president of NBC Olympics, is very honest about what his challenges are in covering the Paralympics. He says, “I need to have it funded.” The good news about what’s happening now is that Toyota, Samsung, and BP have stepped up as global partners, with sponsorships specifically earmarked for the Paralympics. So in 2020, NBC will have its broadest coverage ever for the Paralympics. Every event will be available through one of their cable channels, NBC Universal, or one of their streaming platforms.

But the real prize is Los Angeles 2028, when the Olympics and Paralympics will come to the United States. That’s when I think you’re going to see an amazing transformation in terms of commercial success. You’re going to see advertisers seeking out the Paralympics. They used to buy advertising for the Olympics and get the Paralympics thrown in, but the Paralympics are beginning to have their own commercial value.

Is there a broader story to be told here about the commercial and cultural mainstreaming of disabled Americans?
I do think the Paralympics are an example of how sports can change society. More people are able to look beyond the disability. The Paralympics are no longer viewed primarily as feel-good stories. We’ve gotten beyond “Isn’t it nice that these people can participate.” Now it’s more like, “These are incredible athletes” — period.

That’s what I see in the athletes that we raise money for. They have more of a commitment to sports than able-bodied people. When you see a disabled skier out there at 6 a.m. and it’s minus 10, and they’re getting on their monoski and dealing with the conditions along with all the stuff they deal with in their daily lives, it’s pretty impressive. I do think society is becoming more attuned to that.

You’ve been around these athletes for 25 years. What’s different if I’m a para athlete today, compared to 25 years ago?
Bob Meserve and that whole generation had to problem-solve everywhere they went. They were pioneers. There wasn’t accessibility at any of the ski areas. The skiers would show up with all their equipment and there’d be no ramps, no lift access, none of what we take for granted today. They’d go to compete in Europe and it was the same thing. But these were active people who loved the skiing lifestyle and loved racing, so they just kept at it.

Steve Raymond, co-founder/chairperson of Adaptive Spirit

Today there’s just so much more access. Anyone who has an impairment or disability can find a sport to participate in. It’s gotten super hard to become a Paralympian because the competition is much stiffer. The coaches for our Paralympic Nordic ski team are going out and doing camps with very young kids, because it takes four to eight years to get someone to be good enough to even have a shot at a Paralympic games. They are constantly going out to identify and develop athletes.

The larger story is that more people can participate and have fun and enjoy whatever sport they want. I see so much more accessibility, but it’s become harder to become that elite athlete.

Is Adaptive Spirit open to the public?
Some of the events are, yes. We have an amazing silent auction on Saturday night — that’s April 4 this year — and anyone can bid online using our app. We started using mobile bidding the last couple years, so people can bid from anywhere, and everyone can see who they’re bidding against. That has made it really fun. I’ve got family members all over the country, and last year whenever I put in a bid on anything, they would instantly bid me up.

The other really big public event is the race on Saturday, April 4, starting at 10 a.m. on Gold Peak. You can see the athletes of the US Paralympic ski team compete. We’ve always struggled a little bit with how much to promote Adaptive Spirit, because it is primarily a B2B event for the cable television industry. People in the Vail Valley know about us, and so do people who follow the Paralympic ski team closely. Over 25 years, we’ve raised a good amount of money and that has allowed us to have an impact. We feel like we’re part of the Paralympic movement, and we want to continue to be involved in it.

Postscript: Bob Meserve has stayed deeply involved in winter parasports, spending the last 15 years as board president for Disabled Sports USA. He was inducted into the Disabled Ski Hall of Fame a decade ago. Steve Raymond, meanwhile, went into the Colorado Snowsports Hall of Fame last October. Not bad for a couple of ski bums from Vail.

Adaptive Spirit 2020 takes place April 2-5 at Vail Ski Resort. The ski race on April 4 is free and open to the public; 10 a.m. sharp on Gold Peak. If you’re inclined to attend the full event, you still have a week to register. Complete info at www.adaptivespirit.com.

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