The best athletes in the world aren’t only competing in the XXIII Winter Olympics this weekend. Take an up-close-and-personal seat to more great slope skills at the 43rd annual Wells Fargo Ski Cup, the longest running professional ski race in the country, this weekend in Winter Park. Running Feb. 23-25, the race is hosted by the National Sports Center for the Disabled (NSCD), an organization that’s been helping children and adults with disabilities learn about themselves and grow as athletes since 1970.
The event is the largest fundraiser for the NSCD and will feature winter athletes from all over the world, including more than ten NSCD competition athletes preparing to compete in Pyeongchang, South Korea for the U.S. Winter Paralympic team, as they compete in three separate races. We chatted with competition center director Erik Petersen, who has trained more than 300 competitive athletes since he’s been with the NSCD, many of whom have gone on to the U.S. Winter Paralympics, about the event and what it’s like training some truly amazing athletes.
Have you always loved skiing?
“I’ve been around skiing my whole life. I grew up in Vermont and moved to Colorado after I graduated high school to pursue my own personal Olympic dreams. Unfortunately, injuries cut me out of reaching the highest level but other doors, like coaching, opened thankfully.”
What drew you to the NSCD?
“I think it was really providential; I had been working in the able-bodied ski world for all my life and learned there that we are kind of entitled. When I came to the NSCD, everyone’s attitude was like a breath of fresh air. These athletes have to do a lot more with less and the fact that they are able to achieve some of the skills they do is pretty unbelievable. They want to be treated like any other athlete and have a lot of appreciation for the sport.”
What is special about training these athletes?
“Probably the challenge. I work with three different classes: the visually impaired class, standing athletes, where someone might be missing a leg above or below the knee or have cerebral palsy, and sitting skiers, the athletes who might have been born with spina bifida and have been in a wheelchair their whole life or had an injury. Everyone is a little different and has a unique technique. As a coach, you have to think outside the box all the time. You have to be able to see how their body works and then be able to make appropriate adjustments to their technique to help them go as fast as they can. It’s really cool for me that I’m constantly learning along the way.”
What are your hopes for this year’s Paralympics? Any athletes we should be keeping our eye out for?
“We’ve got some good athletes. In the sitting category, Alana Nichols is going for her third Winter Olympics in a row. She hasn’t qualified yet, but I think she is still one of the best sitting skiers in the world. There are some other athletes who have been through our program who are either here with us or are competing in an event with their national team. We have some really high hopes for all of them. I’m happy to see them be successful and try their hardest. As a coach, medals are nice–everyone likes to win a medal!–but, in the end, if an athlete comes back to me ten years later and says that the NSCD program changed their life that’s when I know I actually did my job.”
Can you tell us a bit more about the Wells Fargo Ski Cup event?
“It’s a great fundraiser for our organization, but it’s also a great opportunity to bring awareness to the community that we serve here in Denver and up in the mountains in Winter Park. We can showcase some of our athletes’ talents and they can share their stories with people who wouldn’t normally have a chance to hear them.”