NSCD celebrates 50 years of innovation and adaptability

The organization was founded to increase access to the outdoors for all Coloradans, ensuring that no one would ever feel limited.

A skier competes at NSCD's annual Wells Fargo Ski Cup at Winter Park Resort. 

Living in Colorado comes with many perks, just one of which is living an active life outdoors. But what if you were living with a diagnosis that limited your ability to recreate in the state? In 1970, the National Sports Center for the Disabled (NSCD) was founded to increase access to the outdoors for all Coloradans, ensuring that no one would ever feel limited. 

Adaptability and innovation has carried the NSCD through fifty years, enabling the organization to serve over 150,000 children and adults living with disabilities. Through the organization’s programming, it has helped these individuals get outdoors and participate in the sports and activities that draw people to the Rocky Mountains. 

Initially, the nonprofit was started when the Children’s Hospital contacted Winter Park Resort to see if the resort had any ski instructors who could take children with amputations skiing. Hal O’Leary, a ski instructor for Winter Park at the time, volunteered and began a journey of helping 23 amputees learn to ski. 

From there, the organization has grown and evolved without limitations. “Not only have we grown in the numbers that we serve, but also in the type of programming,” says Kim Easton, president and CEO of NSCD. “We’ve grown and evolved in this way because there is a need for this type of programming. The NSCD really transforms lives and not just individuals, but our communities by expanding our access, creating opportunities and possibilities for all people with disabilities.”

While the organization began with O’Leary and ski lessons, it now has over 1,231 active volunteers that assist in programming for Nordic skiing, white water rafting, horseback riding, camping, rock climbing, kayaking, paddle sports, shooting sports and more. And, when given the opportunity, NSCD will continue to add programs when the need arises. “We believe that limits aren’t shaped by an individual’s disability but just by simply not having an adaptation for them,” Easton says. 

This is nowhere more obvious than in the NSCD gear closet (pictured above). When O’Leary first started, he drilled holes in the tips of skis and tied them together to create ski gear that worked for the individuals he was serving. This type innovation has carried through — disability by disability, individual by individual, according to Easton — to create new ways for individuals to recreate. Now, for skiing alone, NSCD has monoski equipment, outriggers (ski poles with mini skis on the end), sit skis, ski bikes, ski sliders and much more. 

For many of the adaptive sports equipment, NSCD relies on its partners to help find unique solutions for the over 96 diagnoses and disabilities it serves (this number represents 2019 alone). This includes engineering programs at the Colorado School of Mines and the University of Denver who have helped develop just some of these solutions. 

This type of innovation, as well as the creation of the organization itself, coincided with the beginning of the Winter Paralympic Games, which started in 1976. “We were hand in hand with the beginning of these types of sports,” Easton says.  Now, NSCD athletes have represented 7 countries at 48 U.S. events, 36 National Team events and 54 international events, culminating in nearly 70 medals at those events.  

These athletes represent just one small portion of NSCD’s legacy, another being in its adaptive equipment, but its true legacy is in the sheer number of organizations around the country that were started or are now led by past NSCD athletes, volunteers and participants. 

“NSCD was really one of, if not the pioneer, in this industry of adaptive sports,” Easton says. Going forward, NSCD will “continue to push the limits anc create a space of hope so the people with the determination to pursue a sport have every access and opportunity to do it … [because] all limits are pushable.” 

If seems fitting that what got the nonprofit this far — adaptability and innovation — is exactly what will carry it through its next fifty years. 

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