Adaptive Athletes Win Big in the Mad River Valley

With plans for a new adaptive sports facility at Mt. Ellen underway and a record-breaking event for the High Fives Foundation, you might say there’s some serious momentum building around adaptive sports in the Mad River Valley. 

As fat flakes of snow fell over the Green Mountains last week, a group of adaptive athletes took to the slopes at Sugarbush Resort for High Fives Foundation’s annual Vermont Ski Camp.

The athletes were offered instruction and paired with mentors, many of them local High Fives athletes, who shared their knowledge with those new to adaptive skiing. “I think the feeling of inclusivity really showed yesterday,” said High Fives CEO and founder Roy Tuscany.

On Sunday, the organization held its 9th Fat Ski-A-Thon—a fundraiser where skiers join teams or participate individually in fundraising to support access to rehabilitation, adaptive equipment, training and mentorship for athletes who sustain life-altering spinal cord injuries. Once fundraising is complete, the teams hit the slopes at Sugarbush to see how many runs they can complete on the Valley House Quad in a single day (this year it was Sunday, March 1), the same lift that serves classic lines like Stein’s Run and Spring Fling.

“The coolest part is that we had so many adaptive athletes in the event this year,” says High Fives Foundation Founder and CEO Roy Tuscany. “All day on Sunday, it was like anytime you looked from the chairlift or on the slopes, you could see an adaptive athlete out there.”

This year, the organization raised a record $247,000 with the help of about 225 participants. “It was our most successful fundraising event ever as an organization.”

High Fives Foundation founder Roy Tuscany recognizes High Five Athletes at the 9th annual High Fives Fat Ski-a-thon at Sugarbush Resort on March 1.

Those funds will support the Truckee-based non-profit’s camps for adaptive athletes in Vermont, which it co-hosts with Vermont Adaptive in mountain biking, fly fishing and skiing. Among other services, the funds support infrastructure, from travel to physical rehabilitation, for those who suffer life-altering injuries from the very beginning of their recovery process.

“If someone has a life-changing injury, we want to be there to help their life propel from that point forward,” says Tuscany, who was moved to found the foundation in 2009 as a way to pay forward the support he received from his Mad River Valley community following his own 2006 spinal cord injury.

But the record-breaking 9th annual High Fives Annual Fat Ski-A-Thon wasn’t the only win for adaptive athletes at Sugarbush in the last few weeks.

The event comes just over a week after Vermont Adaptive, the state’s largest adaptive sports nonprofit, filed an Act 250 permit application with the state of Vermont to build a brand-new $2 million adaptive sports facility at Sugarbush.

According to the permit, Sugarbush Resort (now owned by Alterra Mountain Company) will own the land on which the new building will be built, though Vermont Adaptive is the permit applicant. The organization plans to lease the land the building is slated to sit on from Sugarbush on a long-term basis.

A High Fives athlete enjoys on a powder day at Sugarbush. Photo by Jordan Drew/Alpine Media

“We are thrilled to be partnering with Vermont Adaptive in their efforts to build a new adaptive sports facility here at Mt. Ellen,” says Sugarbush President Win Smith. “We believe in the great work of Vermont Adaptive and provide full support to realize that vision.”

If approved, Vermont Adaptive Executive Director Erin Fernandez says the nonprofit will break ground on the new facility this spring.

Once constructed, this will be the second adaptive sports facility operated by Vermont Adaptive in the state. Vermont Adaptive’s other facility at Pico Mountain opened in 2013.

“We saw huge growth in our programs and the number of people who can participate in year-round sports when we built our first adaptive sports facility at Pico Mountain in 2013,” says Fernandez. “We’re excited for the potential growth in the Mad River Valley with this next phase of our Home Sweet Home permanent homes campaign.”

The design and permitting for the new 4,000-sf facility at Sugarbush began in Spring 2018, and the structure was designed by Jeff Dunham Architecture.

According to Vermont Adaptive, the new building has been designed as a three-story facility, with an access-for-all elevator serving all three levels.

The main level will connect with the existing Mt. Ellen base lodge so that adaptive athletes will now have ready access to the food court. The upper level of the new building will house a quiet space for yoga and other indoor programming, along with a quiet sensory room where people who need a break from over-stimulation can find one. There will also be space for service animals to hang out while their partners are out on the hill.

The upper level of Vermont Adaptive’s new building will connect directly to Mt. Ellen’s classic upstairs ski bar, the Green Mountain Lounge—making it wheelchair accessible for the first time.

Essentially, adaptive athletes will now have much easier access to both Vermont Adaptive’s resources and the spaces and amenities that all skiers and riders enjoy at Mt. Ellen.

“Friends and participants of Vermont Adaptive’s programs at Sugarbush have pledged a generous challenge to match every dollar up to $1 million for this Sugarbush facility,” says Fernandez, who adds that, in addition to donations, Vermont Adaptive is seeking in-kind support in the form of building materials.

According to Kim Jackson, director of communications for Vermont Adaptive, the organization is currently working to raise the remaining $500,000 needed to reach its $2 million funding goal to be able to break ground on the facility in spring 2020.

This new facility at Sugarbush is part of a multi-year campaign by Vermont Adaptive that also includes the construction of a new year-round adaptive facility on the Burlington Waterfront and establishing an endowment—a $4 million venture that would offer adaptive athletes access to rock climbing, Nordic skiing, sailing and other sports, year-round.

If all goes as planned, Vermont Adaptive plans to construct a new building adjacent to the existing Mt. Ellen base lodge. Rendering courtesy Vermont Adaptive.

With the new facility at Sugarbush, Vermont Adaptive will be able to offer more programs such as wellness and environmental camps, retreats, social events, training seminars, and sport-specific programs for adaptive athletes across Vermont, as well as adaptive athletes who come to visit and recreate in the Mad River Valley.

And, adaptive athletes will now have a new and improved space to prep for a day on the slopes, with vastly improved access to Mt. Ellen’s iconic base lodge (and it’s famously fun apres-scene).

According to Fernandez, the new facility will also allow Vermont Adaptive more space for storing and maintaining adaptive winter sports gear, a key step towards building their programming in Northern and Central Vermont.

The plan is for the Andrea Mead Lawrence Lodge at Pico to remain Vermont Adaptive’s headquarters and the hub of the organization’s year-round programming in southern Vermont.

Adaptive ski equipment is costly and many athletes rely on foundations like Vermont Adaptive and High Fives Foundation for funding, training and support to access snowsports. For example, a new mono ski can cost upwards of $6,000, a steep cost of entry for someone who is recovering from a life-altering injury.

Tuscany voiced his excitement for Vermont Adaptive and the athletes they serve over the new facility.

“I can’t wait to watch what they do. This new building is really going to allow Vermont Adaptive to have a place that matches the top-notch services they provide.”

Next year will be the High Fives Foundation’s 10th FAT Ski-a-Thon, and Tuscany says they hope to make “a really exciting announcement about expansions for Vermont at the event.”

Of the athletes on the slopes at Sugarbush on Sunday, at least 12 were local adaptive athletes who have been supported by the High Fives Foundation. For at least one of those athletes, the High Fives Foundation event marked the first time they were able to get back on skis since sustaining a life-altering spinal cord injury.

“In Vermont, we take care of our own,” said Tuscany. “You could really feel that this week at Sugarbush.”

Featured Photo: A High Fives athlete skis with style on a powder day at Sugarbush. Photo by Jordan Drew/Alpine Media

Abagael Giles

Abagael Giles is the Assistant Editor at Vermont Ski + Ride Magazine. She loves free-heel skiing and exploring her home state of Vermont–one ridgetop at a time. Find her on Twitter at @AbagaelGiles.