The moment he hears the word “mono-ski,” Seth Faulconer perks up.
“It’s lighter and more responsive compared to what you’re in now,” Randy Coffman tells Faulconer over lunch. “A little more sporty.”
“Plus,” fellow adaptive skier Ray Shaw pipes up from across the table, “it’s a total babe magnet.”
Everyone laughs. Not so much because the 17-year-old Faulconer has a form of cerebral palsy called spastic diplegia that robs him of strength and balance in his legs. More because it’s a funny line – and also because Shaw is blind.
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Until a few years ago, Seth Faulconer assumed he’d never experience the thrill and pleasure of schussing down a snow-covered mountainside.
Until a few years ago, Faulconer assumed he’d never experience the thrill and pleasure of schussing down a snow-covered mountainside. Sure, he knew adaptive skiing existed. He just never thought he’d be the one doing it.
“Never in my wildest dreams did I think, ‘I’m going to learn to ski, and I’m going to learn to do it well,’ ” he says. “It was the furthest thing from my mind.”
That changed when Faulconer got involved with the Central California Adaptive Sports Center, an outdoor adventure program for the physically disabled co-founded by Coffman and his wife, Lisa.
Now Seth and his father, Mark, are regulars at China Peak Mountain Resort and the donated mobile home that serves as a winter base. In summer, the nonprofit relocates to Shaver Lake, where participants participate in mountain biking, rock climbing, kayaking, fly fishing and horseback riding.
He actually has a more active life than I did growing up – and most of his schoolmates.
Mark Faulconer, on his 17-year-old son, Seth, who has cerebral palsy
Over the past three winters, Faulconer has been progressing on a sit ski, essentially a molded bucket seat mounted on suspension bindings to one ski (a mono-ski) or two (a bi-ski). The device allows him to carve turns using his upper body and outriggers attached to his hands.
Until Thursday afternoon, Faulconer had only piloted a bi-ski, which is more stable and easier to steer. But, as promised, the Sierra High School junior got his first taste of a mono-ski, comparable to moving from a station wagon to a coupe.
“It is so responsive all you really have to do is turn your head and think about turning and it turns,” Seth marvels later.
The sit skis and other equipment are owned and maintained by the Central California Adaptive Sports Center, which originated in December 2013 and subsists off government and private grants as well as donations. It is the only mountain adventure program of its kind between Lake Tahoe and Big Bear.
Disabled veterans make up about 70 percent of the participants, according to Coffman. Thanks to a grant from the Department of Veterans Affairs, our wounded warriors get to ski and do all the summer activities free of charge. For everyone else there’s a fee schedule posted on the front desk, though no one ever pays full price.
“We tell people, ‘Just get them to our front door. We’ll take care of it from there,’ ” Coffman says. “And we do.”
70 Percentage of Central California Adaptive Sports Center participants who are disabled veterans
The nonprofit’s signature fundraiser, an endurance event called Seven Hours on the Razor, is March 5. After collecting pledges in advance, participants ski or ride down one of China Peak’s more popular runs before taking Chair 1 back up the mountain for repeats. Many wear costumes, and prizes are awarded in categories like highest pledges and most laps.
It’s a great time for a truly great cause. And this year there promises to be great snow.
The organization has four paid staff but otherwise relies on volunteers trained to work with adaptive skiers. Whenever Faulconer hits the slopes, he does so with an instructor (skiing behind him on tethers to ensure he doesn’t speed out of control) and an assistant (alerting others on the hill).
“It’s a good feeling to know you have professionals right behind you in a literal and figurative sense,” Faulconer says. “They’re essentially back there to help you and make you a better skier. It’s almost like a private lesson as you’re having fun.”
Another regular is Shaw, an affable 63-year-old who describes himself as being 98 percent blind. But that doesn’t stop the Lompoc resident from skiing or from doing much else.
How does blind skier Ray Shaw “see” where he’s going?
How does a blind skier “see” where he’s going? Shaw does it with guided assistance from Coffman, who skis closely behind him while giving continual verbal instructions through a radio headset.
“I have to absolutely 100 percent trust my sighted guide,” Shaw says. “When he says right, I can’t second-guess him or else I’ll be in a tree well.”
It really is a remarkable thing to watch.
“We’ve all closed our eyes for three seconds and tried to be Ray,” volunteer Bill Morse adds. “You end up screaming like a frightened teenager.”
The Coffmans are Shaver Lake residents who live part of the year in Crested Butte, Colo. That is where Randy, a retired National Park Service ranger and former China Peak ski patrol director, first got involved with adaptive sports. Eventually he and Lisa founded their own nonprofit based in our local mountains.
He’s one of those guys who’s been everywhere and done everything, and he puts that experience into us here.
Seth Faulconer, on Randy Coffman
Over the last three years, the nonprofit has garnered the support of dozens of businesses and foundations, both local and national.
“That support allows a lot more people to participate at lesser fees or no fees at all,” Randy Coffman says.
For participants, the rewards of getting to ski or mountain bike, activities they wouldn’t be able to do without a little help, are pretty obvious.
“It has the speed, the thrill, the adrenaline rush that you get,” says Faulconer, who this year ditched the walker he used to get around school. “There’s also the finesse of making tighter turns and tougher maneuvers. You’re always improving and always learning.”
Adds Shaw, “Any time I can move faster than I walk, it’s a thrill.”
For Coffman, the rewards are subtler: giving back, making a difference and passing along his vast knowledge to others.
“I don’t know who feels better at the end of the day, me or them,” he says. “I don’t know that there’s anything I’ve done in my life that’s been more therapeutic than this.”