National Ability Center

@discovernac | contributor
The National Ability Center is a leading non-profit organization that provides world-class adaptive recreation and outdoor adventures for individuals and families of differing abilities.

Single-Handedly Reaching for the Gold as a Paralympian in Tokyo

Paralympic dual-sport athlete Dani Aravich’s sprint to Tokyo 2020 and Beijing 2022 By Dani Aravich, National Ability Center Volunteer and 2020 Paralympian I came into this world different. Born without a left forearm, I’ve learned not to let my differences inhibit me from my dreams. Growing up, I found myself enthralled by a multi-sport athlete’s fast-paced, exciting lifestyle. That led me to compete in various sports from soccer to softball, volleyball, downhill skiing, and basketball. Being an all-season athlete prepares you at a young age to be persistent, diligent and flexible. Transitioning between different sports instilled habits in me early on that allowed me to thrive as an adaptive athlete, and encouraged me to pursue a Paralympic career in both Winter and Summer Paralympic Games. (Dual) Road to Gold After discovering I was eligible for the Paralympics in 2019, I began training to compete in track and field. Soon after, I was invited to a Paralympic training camp for Nordic skiing by a Team USA developmental coach. Encouraged by my family, mentors, coaches and teammates, I decided to continue competing in both sports. I utilized skill sets from both disciplines to succeed simultaneously. Running the 400 meter in track and field for the Tokyo 2020 Games, while also skiing up to 15 kilometers as a Nordic skier leading up to Beijing, requires multiple training approaches that correlate with one another. The endurance, speed, and agility for both events are difficult to master separately, but the prospect of competing as a dual athlete drove me to be my best. My mindset of perseverance was not acquired for the sole purpose of training for the Paralympics. For three seasons, I competed in both cross country and track and field at Butler University. Developing assets like time management, composure and nimbleness is not easy. The lessons I learned through my collegiate athletic career have prepared me for this season of life as I continue to train and compete in hopefully what will be two Paralympic games and perhaps more in the future. Giving to the Next Generation Qualifying for my first Paralympics spurred my motivation to keep working towards the larger goal of competing in additional Paralympic games throughout my career. Not only does this achievement stoke the passion within me to train for the games, but it also lights a fire for me to encourage and mentor the next generation of adaptive athletes. My biggest hope is that their goals and expectations of the adaptive sports arena exceed my own. The National Ability Center (NAC) has helped me channel my passion for the future Paralympian. My involvement with the leading adaptive recreation organization started with an introduction to the NAC at a networking event for my previous job with the Utah Jazz. The NAC serves as an outlet for training, recovery and connection for those with various disabilities. Their mission breaks the recreational barriers for athletes with disabilities, like myself. After my first introduction, I reached out to inquire about volunteer opportunities where I could use my athletic skills to nurture upcoming athletes. That first encounter led to me becoming a volunteer assistant Alpine ski instructor. Today, when I’m not training, I continue to serve as an assistant instructor for both NAC’s Alpine and Nordic skiing programs, challenging my participants to make tough sacrifices now in order to achieve greatness later. Looking forward After recently fulfilling my dream of representing Team USA at the 2020 Tokyo Paralympic Games, which are taking place a year later than they were supposed to, I am tasked with the challenge of resetting my mind to prepare for the 2022 Beijing Winter Paralympic Games. After a grueling period of training for the Summer Games, I look forward to a moment of rest before preparing for the 2024 Summer season. As a multi-sport athlete, it is often difficult to unwind. Constant movement means constant development, but athletes also have to remember that stillness is just as beneficial. Following the upcoming Games in Beijing, I am eager to sprint into Paris 2024, but on a personal note, post-Paralympics season, I plan to take several trips with friends and loved ones, and allow for some medical attention that I have been putting off for quite a while. Being a Paralympic competitor is the ultimate privilege for any athlete, and being able to compete in both winter and summer games means I can show the world that Team USA is a force to be reckoned with. I’ve always known that my abilities do not restrict me from being powerful, and that they catapult me into reaching new heights and crushing unthinkable goals. My work with the National Ability Center has only proved me right, and I know the mindset of power in all abilities encourages the next generation.

My Daughter's Path From Orphanage to Multi-Sport Disability Athlete

By Kathy Cortez, Parent of Participant, Ping Ping Cortez We adopted Ping Ping in November 2018, a mere 15 days before she lost her chance of being adopted. At the age of 14, a child is deemed too old for the system in China. After being abandoned in an alley, Ping Ping was taken in by a local family, who ultimately became overwhelmed by the cost and care associated with her spina bifida and gave her away to a local orphanage. Eventually transferred to a foster home for medically fragile children in Northern China, she worked from 6:00 a.m. to bedtime doing chores for her neglectful foster mother while caring for the other children. Once she arrived in Utah with our family, Ping Ping attended a summer camp but was disappointed by the lack of wheelchair adaptations. Luckily, I recalled learning about the National Ability Center (NAC) a while back and was eager to explore their offerings in hopes it could broaden Ping Ping’s horizons and outlook on what she could experience in life. Ping Ping’s newfound love of adaptive recreation was brought to light after her first adventure with the NAC’s equestrian program. Here are a couple of things that Ping Ping learned on her journey to becoming an athlete. Don’t let anything hold you back. Ping Ping struggles to use most of her lower extremities, but one of her first questions on the trip home to Utah was asking when she would be able to ride a horse. At first, it was difficult to find programs that would accommodate her and her wheelchair. But, when Ping Ping asked if there was such a thing as a “wheelchair camp,” I remembered hearing about the NAC and its Action Camp from a longtime volunteer, Mary Lou. At the NAC, Ping Ping went horseback riding and was able to feel strong, supported and mighty for the first time. While getting a doctor’s note for the activity, we learned that horseback riding is an ideal resource for children with differences in mobility. She started off with group lessons, but switched to one-on-one sessions to comply with social distancing guidelines. Ping Ping didn’t stop her athletic journey there, though. The NAC’s diverse range of adaptive programming allowed her to take part in activities she always dreamed of doing. In the winter, she skis at least twice a week. Prior to the pandemic, she participated in swimming and rock climbing weekly. As she climbed back down one day, she told me: “I never thought I could move my own body up a mountain and now I can.” Don’t be afraid of change. Ping Ping was originally working with a horse named Sunny in the early stages of her horseback riding. One day, she was placed with a replacement horse, Tod, and he immediately laid his head down on her lap. The connection between them was almost instantaneous. A new tradition of private chats between Ping Ping and Tod began, and she knew he’d always be there for her. A talkative child since joining our family, Tod unleashed a new side of Ping Ping. She was opening up in ways that we’d never seen. As she started to reveal stories from her life in China, it was apparent that she had been holding back her personality and emotions. It always began with her talking about what Tod did during her lesson, but gradually transitioned to sharing past memories. Some would have her grinning from ear to ear, but others would cause her to fight off tears. Sports can transform you physically and mentally. Due to the new sense of responsibility and purpose she’s obtained from taking care of Tod before and after rides, Ping Ping’s self-efficacy has soared. Being able to ride a large horse as a 4’5” and 90-pound budding adolescent has also granted her a well-deserved sense of power and thrill. Before discovering the NAC, Ping Ping had never been anywhere more exciting than a park.The programs have also drastically improved her strength, furthering her horseback riding skills. Every day of indoor rock climbing helps to strengthen her upper body, which she depends on heavily because of her lower body paralysis. Skiing has helped her balance and core strength by pushing her to stabilize her sit-ski as she rushes down a mountain. Ping Ping’s life was nothing she expected, but it became everything she dreamed of. The limitless physical activity the National Ability Center has offered her has changed her spirit and fortified her drive and body. Not only did she gain an everlasting relationship with Tod, but she became an athlete.

How I Became a Competitive Adaptive Skier With Cerebral Palsy

By Chris Biggins How becoming a competitive adaptive skier changed my outlook I know exactly which competition I would lose: a walking competition. If you see me walk into a room, you know right away there’s something different — that I walk (in my own words) pretty funky. That’s because I was born with cerebral palsy, which affects the strength in my lower back and legs. But there is one place where I have a break from it all, where my skill and strength shine through. And that’s on the ski slopes. Skiing gives me a break from having a disability and allows me to excel at the thing I’m not set up to be any good at. It challenges me to overcome and to pursue my dreams with confidence. The Love of Skiing Begins Family vacations served as the catalyst for my love of skiing. My family would drive 10 hours to squeeze in a few ski days throughout the year. It was a break from our busy schedules, a chance to bond and enjoy the outdoors. My passion continued through college and beyond. To be honest, while I loved skiing, I never believed I could do it professionally with my disability. I had only ever competed in “able-bodied” sports. But that quickly changed when I was introduced to the world of adaptive sports. I first started ski racing by attending the Hartford Ski Spectacular, a large winter sports festival in Breckenridge, CO. My plan was to spend a week there, learning all that I could about adaptive ski racing. My one-week trip turned into three months. The Road to the 2022 Paralympics My drive to excel was quickly noticed by the coaches at the Ski Spectacular, who suggested I train with the National Ability Center. There, the coaches pushed me to compete at peak performance in a physically demanding sport. I got the chance to train full time as an athlete, despite the limitations of my disability. My upcoming training season is a particularly important one. Everything I have worked for the past six years has built up to this season. In previous years, I was preparing for the challenge. But this year, I am ready to perform. This is my sprint to the finish, my chance to prove myself, to race for Team USA at the 2022 Paralympic Games. Lessons Learned From Life on the Slopes As I set my sights on what’s ahead, I think back on how skiing has changed me, about the lessons I’ve learned on the slopes. I have learned the value of the fight. Skiing is a fight to be great. It requires aggression, powerful yet calculated movements, dynamic mobility and a willingness to walk the line of control and danger. As an adaptive skier, I am able to ski at a level most able-bodied skiers cannot. The hours of training, the attention to detail, has been exhausting and demanding, but I know I’ve come prepared to perform. I have learned to never accept less than my very best. Being on the slopes demands excellence and constant motivation. I can only approach this season knowing I have done my absolute best and will leave everything on the line. In order to do this well, I have never accepted “good enough.” Instead, it’s always about how I can do even more, try even harder, achieve the next big dream. This drive fuels me. I have learned what I am capable of. Ten years ago, I didn’t think I would be able to be an athlete with my disability. But the National Ability Center and my competitive drive have proven me wrong. Today, I teach golf for a living, am one of the top 10 world ranked disabled golfers and I’m training for the U.S. Paralympic ski team. None of this would have been possible without testing my true potential. When others ask me for advice, my answer is simple: never settle for “I can’t.” Athletes must push the boundaries of physical limitations. Only then can you find what you’re truly capable of. Being on the slopes has changed my life and my perspective. It showed me what I could achieve. I can fly down the mountain at speeds over 60 mph, weave through trees, attack a slalom course, jump small cliffs and more. On the slopes, I am no longer the guy who struggles to walk “normally.” I am an athlete at the top of his game, with a dream ahead of him. I am free.

Competing in Adapted Skiing With a Disability

by Saylor O’Brien “Every soul who comes to earth with a leg or two at birth must wrestle his opponents knowing it’s not what is, but what can be, that measures worth. Make it hard, just make it possible and through pain, I won’t complain. My spirit is unconquerable. Fearless I will face each foe for I know I am capable. I don’t care what’s probable, through blood, sweat, and tears I am unstoppable.” — Anthony Robles I stared at that quote from my hospital bed, fighting back tears. Those words were all I could think about, written on the hospital’s whiteboard in my mother’s familiar scrawl. How often had I read those words when I was young? They hung on the wall in my childhood home. I read them every day. A reminder — so simple, yet so powerful. I am capable. I am unstoppable. My spirit is unconquerable. As a child growing up with spina bifida, a condition that causes paralysis in the spine, the last thing I felt was invincible. From birth, my parents knew my life would be full of challenges. But sports represented an opportunity. They were an outlet, a chance to do things differently; to own who I was and embrace living with a disability. Yet, none of the sports stuck, until I tried skiing. Then, I felt alive. I loved every moment and I never wanted that feeling to go away. I began at the age of 4 by standing in an old pair of skis and ski boots while watching my favorite TV shows. This seemingly simple exercise made me aware of the art of balance, of presence in the moment. For the first time, I felt fearless. I knew something incredible was possible. I took to the slopes and began formal lessons. The wind, the snow, the feel of the ground moving beneath you. It’s hard even now for me to describe it. My disability didn’t define me on the ski hill. I was fast, I was strong, I was powerful. My love for the sport only grew and I aimed my sights higher: competitive ski racing. With the help of the National Ability Center, an organization that provides adaptive recreation and outdoor adventures for individuals and families with differing abilities, I knew my dream could become a reality. Their program made me feel that the possibilities were truly limitless. I made their competitive ski team and embarked on a new goal: to take part in the 2022 Paralympic Games. For someone with disabilities, this was huge. From early on, I questioned what my life would be like. Yet as a teenager I had not only discovered my passion, but also found a way to harness my ability, skills and drive to pursue it competitively. It’s not what is, but what can be, that measures worth… My spirit is unconquerable. I began a rigorous training schedule: five-days-a-week training sessions in the winter and camps in the offseason to maintain my skills. To say I was always dedicated would be misleading. I am a teenager, after all. If I’m being honest, there were days (still are) when I don’t feel like doing it. I wonder what it would be like to have a more typical teenage experience, to go to high school alongside my peers. I pause and think, what is this all for? Then, I remember how far I’ve come and how far I can go. Following your passion comes with sacrifice. I am capable. I am unstoppable. So, I pushed forward in pursuit of my dream, letting my success speak for itself. My goal was within reach. I could almost hear the crowds roaring at the 2022 Paralympics in Beijing. And then came last summer. An ATV ride, a crash, burns on my leg. Multiple surgeries. The looming questions, which felt too painful to even speak out loud: Will my ski career continue? What will I do if my ski season isn’t in the picture? I have always said it’s important to find the fun in the hard parts of life. But, at that moment, nothing felt fun. It felt hard. It felt painful. It felt like failure. As I sat in my hospital bed, I stared at my mother’s writing on the whiteboard. I don’t care what’s probable. Through blood, sweat and tears, I am unstoppable. There was a deep ache within my gut, a burning desire to keep going. I wanted this. I needed this. This body may have disabilities, but it’s just as strong. It’s just as capable. My dreams are just as real. And with each passing day, I did the work. I pushed my body to be healthy again. I made it to ski season. Because my goals will not go unreached. And now here we are, in the midst of training. My dream remains: compete in the 2022 Paralympic Games. If I close my eyes, I can picture it: the rush of the wind, the spray of the snow, the feeling of freedom that comes with skiing. I see those who have believed in me all along, my parents, my teammates, my coaches from the National Ability Center. And I have hope that by the time I get there, the same media energy that accompanies the Olympics will also showcase the Paralympics. Because disabilities are a rich, diverse, unique experience. They are not a disadvantage. Dreams don’t stop just because you do something in a different way. We all are capable. We can all be unstoppable. Our spirits are unconquerable.