Nonprofit gives free ski trip to disabled U.S. veterans, celebrates its 50th anniversary

Accidentally shot by a fellow U.S. Army soldier, Larry Celano suffered a spinal cord injury that left him unable to walk. After earning a Purple Heart for his service in the 1989 Panama invasion, Celano worked as an accountant for five years before continued medical problems led to an early retirement.

Despite the setbacks, Celano said he tries not to let his disability get in the way, including going on ski trips in the Sierra the last two years.

“Last year the goal was not to get hurt,” the Chandler, Ariz., resident said as he got ready for a run at Alpine Meadows ski resort. “This year the goal is to go a little bit faster.”

Celano was one of 17 veterans who received an all-expenses-paid trip last week from Achieve Tahoe, a nonprofit organization based at Alpine Meadows and a national pioneer in helping the disabled ski and participate in other “high-challenge” sports. The annual veterans camp has special significance this year because it is the 50th anniversary of Achieve Tahoe, which was started by former members of a World War II mountain regiment who wanted to help disabled veterans coming home from the Vietnam War.

Achieve Tahoe is the charter organization of what became Disabled Sports USA, a national group with more than 100 chapters providing access to more than 30 sports. Achieve Tahoe, which changed its name two years ago from Disabled Sports USA Far West, focuses on skiing in the winter, and rafting, water skiing and other sports in the summer.

Achieve Tahoe celebrated its anniversary and the conclusion of the veterans camp Saturday in the former dining hall of the 1960 Winter Olympics at Squaw Valley. Andy Wirth, CEO of Squaw Valley-Alpine Meadows, emcees the veterans dinner every year.

“It’s incumbent upon us all to voice and demonstrate our deep sense of appreciation for the men and women who serve our country in the military,” Wirth said. “For those veterans who have suffered life-altering injuries, this is just one more way to help them.”

Achieve Tahoe operates out of a building next to a beginner trail at Alpine Meadows. The resort provides the property free of charge, said Achieve Tahoe Executive Director Haakon Lang-Ree. Most of the organization’s $1 million annual budget comes from monetary or in-kind donations, with the rest coming from fees charged to participants, he said.

For the veterans in last week’s camp, everything was free: airfare, lodging at a Hyatt hotel, and skiing at Alpine Meadows, Squaw Valley, Northstar and Diamond Peak. Most visitors pay $95 to get a two-hour ski lesson, less than half the actual cost to Achieve Tahoe, Lang-Ree said.

Each year, the organization serves about 800 people with a range of physical disabilities, including loss of limbs and vision, and mental and developmental disabilities. The goal is to help individuals with disabilities gain self-confidence, mobility and greater independence, Lang-Ree said.

Teaching the disabled how to ski is labor intensive, requiring at least one instructor for every skier, Lang-Ree said. Achieve Tahoe has six full-time and 15 part-time employees, along with 150 volunteers who are expected to serve at least eight days each ski season.

The staff includes Bill Bowness, a three-time Paralympics medal winner, who has taught at Achieve Tahoe for 40 years after becoming disabled in a car accident at age 18. “I turned an avocation into a profession,” he said.

Bowness and other skiers with leg disabilities use “monoskis,” a single ski attached to a chair with suspension bars, and “outriggers,” poles with ski tips at the end, which help them turn.

On Thursday, enough volunteers showed up that each veteran had two instructors. Veterans on a monoski for the first time got pushed up the hill a couple of times, so they could get comfortable with the equipment before they started using the chairlift. Volunteers grabbed veterans under the arms to ease them onto the chairlifts.

After his third run, Richard Alcaraz, a veteran of the Marines, said he was feeling comfortable. “I don’t feel disabled when I’m doing sports,” the Peoria, Ariz., resident said. “I want to teach other veterans how to do this.”

Fellow Arizonan Celano was feeling the same way.

“Woo-hoo!” he shouted as shot down the hill with a big grin on his face, well ahead of his instructors.

“That’s the best part of the day,” instructor Penny Ellenor of Carlsbad said as she watched him.