- Mitch Blatt
DREAMing of Adaptive Sports
I think we can all agree that it’s important to feel like we belong and have friends—even someone calling themselves an “introvert” may just mean “I prefer small gatherings or solo chats to large groups” rather than “I prefer complete solitude to any-size group.”
The disability community is a group that anyone can join at any time, and you may feel like it’s mutually exclusive with the “people who like athletic sports” group. But you’d be wrong. There’s the Paralympics, where people with disabilities compete to bring home the gold, and there are also adaptive sports.
A non-profit called DREAM Adaptive hosts events in Montana where people with disabilities can use equipment like skis, paddleboards, kayaks, and more that’s been customized for their needs (such as a foot-powered kayak with a chair to sit in and adjustable pedals, or a mono-ski that’s kind of like a snowboard with handlebars and brakes). These lessons can either be “half-days” (2.5 hours) or “full days” (4 hours).
DREAM Adaptive’s winter skiing and snowboarding programs started back in 1985, says executive director Julie Tickle, and they expanded from there to summer sports. “The ski program is always very popular, and has been since its inception.” She says, “We are able to run lessons seven days a week, which leads to it being our program with the most lesson volume. On average we provide 1,000 lessons each winter season.”
Julie has worked in the world of adaptive sports for about 14 years, after getting degrees in sports administration and psychology. After grad school, she took on an internship with the US Olympic and Paralympic Committee, then “worked a bunch of different adaptive sports jobs” until DREAM Adaptive offered her a position as a program coordinator in 2017, and she worked her way up to her current position as Executive Director. Every day with DREAM Adaptive is different, which Julie says is her favorite part. Our focus here at DREAM is to focus on people’s abilities,” she says, “and I think that’s just a really positive way to go through life; when you meet anyone, whether it’s in work or in personal lives or whatever, really focusing on the positive things about everyone and what their abilities are and how can we really lift those positive abilities up to reach our goal, whatever that might be. So it’s just a really empowering environment that I get to be a part of. […] Another fun part of our job is we get to think creatively and outside the box to be able to work with each individual and their abilities.” The position of executive director requires her to wear many different hats, which leads to her least favorite part: answering emails and other administrative work, although it’s all for a good cause.
The easiest part of Julie’s job is “creating a family with the same mission”; they might have different goals for the day, but they all want to be outside and enjoy each other's company. The most difficult part is that, “sometimes it takes a while to figure out how to support each individual. That can be sometimes frustrating because we as the organizers of the activities put a lot of pressure on ourselves to make sure that things go really smoothly; sometimes it takes a whole season before we figure out the right setup for folks, or the right way to communicate, or the right equipment. So I’d say that maybe one of the harder parts is just sticking with it, and thinking outside the box, and really just managing expectations for everyone involved; the adaptive athletes, the volunteers, the staff. You know, sometimes it’s not successful right out of the gate, so we have to keep working at it, but you could also spin it and say that’s really rewarding too.”
“Sometimes it takes a while to figure out how to support each individual. That can be sometimes frustrating […] sometimes it takes a whole season before we figure out the right setup for folks, or the right way to communicate, or the right equipment. […] You know, sometimes it’s not successful right out of the gate, so we have to keep working at it, but you could also spin it and say that’s really rewarding too.”-Julie Tickle
As a matter of fact, some of DREAM’s participants go on to the Special Olympics or Paralympics. They’re hoping to build an adaptive center at the Whitefish Mountain Resort soon—an area for winter sports on the mountain, and an area for summer sports down below, as well as a collaborative “nonprofit hub incubator space” where many different nonprofits can work together. Julie says that there isn’t any one particular place where events are held; “One of the best things about skiing and snowboarding is that it is inclusive. We are all out there together, sliding on the same snow and riding the same lifts.”
On a personal level, Julie hopes that in five years she’ll be right where she is now, working with the job and people she loves.
“One of the best things about skiing and snowboarding is that it is inclusive. We are all out there together, sliding on the same snow and riding the same lifts.”-Julie Tickle
Speaking of being inclusive, there are psychological benefits to adaptive sports. These include relieving stress and providing feelings of belonging and community and a common interest to bond over. If you’re worried about how strong or coordinated you are due to an acquired or congenital disability, an adaptive sport could provide just the confidence boost you need by meeting new people and learning a new sport. And if you go on to participate in the Paralympics, you could bring home the gold! Even if you just bring home the bronze, how many people can say they qualified for the Olympics?
DREAM Adaptive does many different sports, but Julie’s favorite is mountain biking. It can be slow like a hike through nature, or fast like traditional biking and give an adrenaline rush. Their adaptive equipment “usually comes with quite a few adjustments,” and is built to be adjustable for each individual user’s specific needs. Believe it or not, I have some personal experience with DREAM. When I tried out their adaptive kayaking last summer, one of the kayaks I used had a chair to sit in with adjustable-length foot pedals and outriggers below the water to keep the boat from tipping. During my visit, Julie and the other event organizers and volunteers were personable and accommodating; all of the available slots had been filled in the time between my signing up for the event and arriving there, but luckily they were able to squeeze me in. They adjusted the kayak’s pedals so I could have an easy time reaching them and walked me through the proper arm/oar movements for tandem paddling. All in all, I would gladly recommend DREAM Adaptive to anyone interested in pursuing adaptive sports.
If you read this and think, “Wow, that’s awesome! I wish adaptive sports were in my city!” why not make it happen? Organize community efforts to obtain or create adaptive equipment for whatever sports you think people will want to do, set up flyers or another form of advertisement, and watch the smiles grow!