Whistler Adaptive Sports Program Turns 20
Image Courtesy Olivia Rey
Olivia Rey has lived most of her life in Whistler, and like many, skiing and snowboarding on the mountains have always been a big part of that life. But it wasn’t until a few months after Nov. 1, 2015 — “a date that will stSince the spring of 2009, the Resort Municipality of Whistler (RMOW) has made it a priority to assess the accessibility of the resort’s built environment for people with both visible and non-visible disabilities. ick with me for the rest of my days,” she said — that she had more than just a passing awareness of the Whistler Adaptive Sports Program (WASP). On that day, Rey sustained serious injuries in a vehicle crash near Lions Bay. She spent two months at Vancouver General Hospital and several more at the G.F. Strong Rehabilitation Centre. She was rendered a C5/C6 quadriplegic, losing the use of her legs. While her arms function quite well, her fingers don’t. She’s able to move around in her manual wheelchair and recently started driving a specially equipped vehicle.
Last winter, though, Rey was able to indulge her passion for skiing for the first time since that fateful day. Her brother, professional skier Stan Rey, joined her on a bluebird day to ski while a friend shot video footage of Olivia strapped into a sit-ski with a WASP volunteer skiing a few metres behind, holding her by a pair of tether straps.
“The first couple of sessions they had to guide me, like pushing a stroller; and after the third session, they put tethers on the back,” Rey said. “I have pretty good control now, but the tethers are there to keep me from going too fast. My goal is to be on my own doing this.” Rey said she’s incredibly thankful to WASP, including volunteer ski guides Vince Levasseur and Gilles Tetreault. “I was a big skier and snowboarder before, and to have a program like this to help me get back up on the mountain is pretty amazing,” she said.
Over the past 19-plus years, stories such as Rey’s have played out with thousands of WASP clients. In 2019, the group marks 20 years of helping make Whistler one of the world’s meccas for adaptive sport, offering individually tailored programs and camps in 18 winter and summer sports. WASP started on a shoestring budget in 1999, when it was granted society status. In the mid-2000s, after Whistler was named Host Mountain Resort for 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Games, the all-volunteer board drew up a document named Vision 2010, laying out a plan to make Whistler an adaptive sport hub, said Chelsey Walker, WASP executive director.
In 2004, the mother of a young disabled skier who worked for Scotiabank helped secure a $50,000 donation from the bank. Until then, “It was just a group of us giving huge amounts of time, and just love and persistence, to get it going until we got that money to expand the program,” said Sian Blythe, a trained neurological nurse who became an adaptive sport coach in the U.K. before moving to Canada with her spouse in 1998.
Blythe, who started out as the group’s volunteer director, said she would love to have become its first paid employee. But at the time, she was living in Vancouver and expecting her family’s second child. In what Blythe called a “leap of faith” financially, the board extended a two-year contract to Walker, a long-term local who had worked as a ski guide and coach and in sport policy development and administration.
“Our job was to come in and create partnerships,” Walker said. “We’ve been able to grow to 18 sports offered on a limited budget. The vision that was laid out in 2004 has been a model that’s worked really well.”
WASP has forged partnerships with Whistler Blackcomb, which provided a base of operations at Olympic Station, and other businesses and non-profit groups. Soldier On, which uses outdoor activities to help current and former soldiers from Canada, the U.S., the U.K. and Australia cope with physical challenges and problems such as post-traumatic stress disorder, is another key partner. Annually, WASP programs serve more than 3,000 people per year — many with unique situations.
Soskay Matsunaga, 8, is one such client. He was born with Down Syndrome and a congenital heart defect. He underwent multiple surgeries at B.C. Children’s Hospital and until he was 5, he had to be fed through a tube, said his mother, Akiho. Soskay is the size of the average 3- or 4-year-old, and still quite frail, Akiho said. After a referral from local physiotherapist Cathy Ivany, though, he started taking part in WASP swimming and run-biking programs in the summer of 2016, and has done kayaking, canoeing and water play at a WASP summer camp for youngsters of varying abilities. Soskay’s strength and stamina have increased to the point where parents Akiho and Junichi Matsunaga were considering putting him into a ski program this winter.
“He’s basically a happy guy who is always smiling and loves to meet with people,” Akiho said, adding that she’s grateful for all those who have helped give her son a chance to grow and become an active youngster. “When I go down to Vancouver, I talk to many special needs people who say, ‘Wow, you’re so lucky to have Whistler Adaptive, with so many activities that he can take part in,’ so I recognize that it is really exceptional for him to have that right in our hometown.”