KENAI, Alaska (AP) — Under the radiant spring sun, Roman and Ashleigh Herr found the snow at Tsalteshi Trails wasn’t yet slushy, but it wasn’t powdery like it was a few months ago, either. But nothing was stopping the two eager skiers from facing Angle Hill on a recent Saturday preparing to race one another to the top. It was Ashleigh’s first time on skis, but not Roman’s. He had the advantage. In fact, Roman had taken part in the same event — a learn to ski clinic for youth with special needs — last year. The two started off and Roman, a 12-year-old Soldotna Middle School seventh-grader with autism, pulled ahead of his cousin quickly.
“Don’t leave her behind,” shouted Roman’s father, Jeremy.
After last year’s event, Roman took to skiing like a duck to water, learning to classic ski and skate ski in one day. Jeremy said the sport helps his son calm down and focus. It’s a nice break from the usual “100 miles an hour” speed he normally goes, he said.
“It is great to see him doing this sport,” he said watching Roman climb the hill. “We had him do Special Olympics swimming and we tried to get him to do it this year and he said no. And we were like, ‘Well, why not?’ He said, ‘Because you made me do it.’
“This is something he chose to do, so it is great.”
After learning last year, Roman joined the Soldotna Middle School ski team where, with the help of the coaching staff and his father, he was able to place well in several ski meets. He would regularly practice five times a week with Jeremy, a lifelong hockey player, who had to relearn how to ski.
“It was hard to learn but I got used to it,” Roman said before taking his first lap up Geezer Hill. “Having to do the skating and do the snowplow was the hardest part. There’s a lot of hard things, but I conquered them well.”
Roman said he also loves to help out his team.
“Like help them win big,” he said.
This year’s event saw about 20 youth participate — not all special needs — compared to last year’s 14. Many youth in various stages of learning dotted the white landscape.
Each time someone mentioned going for a run with him, Roman was already on his way, chomping at the bit to see again the scenery he loves so much.
“On the Coyote trail there is a gorgeous view,” he said. “The Wolf is really my favorite. It is not that hard.”
Jeremy said it’s nice to have something that gives his son that opportunity.
“He really likes to ski,” he said. “He gets out here and he’s in his own peace.”
Angela Beplat, an occupational therapist who grew up skiing and organized the first special needs ski day last year, said Roman is a “huge success story” and exemplified why she wanted to keep the clinic going. She said it’s important for families to get out and be active in the winter.
“A lot of these kids it is just a challenge to come out and be exposed to the cold and the sun and the environment itself can be too much,” she said. “But at the same time if they take the time to enjoy it, try it, sometimes having an activity to focus on really helps them just zero in on what they are doing and not think about everything.”
It is also nice to have an event that focuses on activities for special needs kids versus those that cater to their siblings.
“They don’t have very many activities that focus on them where their siblings can wait and watch them participating,” she said. “It is kind of a turnaround in having an activity that’s for them.”
Beplat said there were also about twice as many adult and youth volunteer coordinators this year from last year. She said she couldn’t have pulled off the event without the extra help, including that from D’Anna Gibson, Ronna Martin and Olivia Fair, a senior at Kenai Central High School. Earlier in the day Gibson bustled from kid to kid, putting feet in boots, boots on skis and skis into classic tracks. Gibson, a longtime skier and KCHS coach, said it means a lot to her to help others discover the activity she loves so much.
“My high school coach had a philosophy that I try and live by and that I try and teach the kids at the high school,” she said. “This is a lifetime activity. I want to see these kids 10, 20, 30 years from now with their own kids out here and I was taught that by my own high school coach. I tried to pass that on because I think it’s important.”
Most beginners would do well to learn classic skiing techniques by the end of their first day. But skate skiing is a little more of a learning curve, Gibson said.
“It’ll just become natural, too, for a lot of these kids,” she said. “Last year I was just really shocked at how well these kids who had never been on skis did.”
Martin, a former Soldotna High School ski coach, worked with Brad Chaffee, also a first-time learner who said he liked the downhill part best. Martin said she was happy to contribute some old ski gear to the event.
“I’ve gathered it over the years and rather than just giving it away I have kept it for events like this,” she said. “I have five kids and so we are always grabbing extra kids to go out skiing with us.”
Kirsten Nyquist, a 14-year-old KCHS skier, spent most of the day working with youth teaching them techniques.
“Yeah, it’s been fun,” she said. “We just kind of talk about keeping your skis going in a straight line, not letting them cross and basically just working on balance.”
She thought the event was worth the time and encouraged others to teach the sport as well.
“It’s really neat,” she said. “I think it is just a really good idea teaching kids this stuff, getting them outside and enjoying the winter.”