As skiers and snowboarders swish past, Lisa Jackson’s smile radiates amidst the concentrating faces. The ski lift comes from behind, perfectly sliding into her rig, thanks to a gentle adjustment from her husband, Jamin. She sits with the front end of her rig hanging ever so dauntingly off the seat. Reaching the top of the mountain, she slides off and becomes just another skier, connecting with the slope.
Born with spina bifida, Lisa lives in between two worlds: walking short distances with the assistance of braces or using a wheelchair. Until three seasons ago, skiing was far from Lisa’s thoughts. “I didn’t know anything about sit skiing,” she recalls. “My parents were very active and advocated for me growing up, but we spent a huge chunk of my childhood in Sudan, so winter sports weren’t anything I tried or knew much about.”
That all changed with one offhand comment to her husband about how “awful” the winter was compared to summer—a time when they could be active and enjoy the outdoors. “She said it would be awesome if she could ski and wished it was possible,” Jamin says. So, he picked up the phone and started to call local ski resorts, searching for a solution. That’s when he learned about the National Ability Center (NAC) and immediately booked a lesson, surprising Lisa the next day.
On day one of learning to sit ski, Lisa misjudged the challenges of the sport. She expected to catch on instantaneously, given her prior experience in wheelchair racing. But learning to navigate the bi ski (an adaptive device with two skis) proved more difficult than she anticipated. Mistakenly, she tried using her upper body strength as opposed to her core and hips. She utilized her arm strength as she would in a wheelchair, jostling her poles with brute force. “Sit skiing is more about balance and where you put your body [in relation to] the slope. It was different than I thought it would be,” Lisa remembers. Once she got the hang of the bi ski, she was eager for more independence, movement, and speed. And so, in her second season, she took on the mono ski.
In the wake of some falls, bruises, and a few swear words, Lisa began to master the one-ski rig. “On the day that it really clicked in her mind, she just let go and was moving with the hill,” recalls Christine Godleski, a ski instructor at the National Ability Center, who followed Lisa through her learning curve. “She would find a little lip to go over and search out the part that was steep. There was a freedom in her movements. She wasn’t worried about getting it right; she was just having fun.” In the process, Lisa learned that sit skiing ultimately feels like the rig is an extension of the body, or as she puts it, “a natural part of you.”
The moment sit skiing became instinctive, Lisa couldn’t help herself. “I was so happy, it was carbonated happiness. As cheesy as it sounds, I cried when it all clicked,” she says. “[Skiing] is a way to be truly immersed in something beautiful. With my personality and my disability, I have that desire not to just see something beautiful, but to become a part of it.”
No longer dreading winter, Lisa and Jamin now embrace the season on the hill. Each ski day, they make a date of it and stick to their routine: wake up, reserve Lisa’s sit ski with the NAC, load the car, stop for coffee and a ham-and-cheese croissant, drive up to Park City Mountain, chat with friends, and ski.
“I admire her fearlessness,” Jamin says. “Sometimes she’s going down slopes and I’m like, ‘oh crap, I don’t know about that.’ She’s pretty ballsy.”
Of course, the no-holds-barred Lisa has her eye on the next ski challenge: shredding the mountains of her home country, Sweden. As she says, “It’s a whole new world, and it’s so beautiful.”
Yes, You Can
Since 1985, the nonprofit National Ability Center (435.649.3991) has provided recreational opportunities for people of all abilities. According to Brian Castillo, ski and snowboard program manager at the NAC, the organization facilitated 4,700 outdoor experiences last season, catering to beginners, vacationers, individuals training for the Paralympics, and everyone in between. “Our job is to put ourselves out of employment, empowering individuals to get out on their own,” Castillo says. “We give them a different lens to view the world and encourage them to get out after it.”