NSCD.jpg Cynthia Dietrich of Boulder poses with a volunteer instructor for the National Sports Center for the Disabled. She travels to Winter Park each Saturday during ski season for a day on the slopes. Photo courtesy of Cynthia Dietrich
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Most Sundays, 25-year-old Cynthia Dietrich of Boulder said she’s the first to arrive at Winter Park to ski with her friends and family.

To Dietrich, that family is made up of volunteers and other participants for the National Sports Center for the Disabled, one of the largest outdoor therapeutic recreation agencies in the world, based in Denver and Winter Park.

The NSCD allows athletes like Dietrich, who was born with spina bifida, to participate in winter sports through programs designed for individuals with any physical, cognitive, emotional or behavioral diagnosis.

“It’s totally a family feeling for me,” Dietrich said. “They aren’t family to me, I’m not related to them, but when I go I feel like it’s totally my family. We are there for ups and down and laughs, and it’s just a really close feeling that we all have.”

NSCD was founded in 1970 to provide ski lessons for children with amputations at the Children’s Hospital of Denver. The organization, which has around 1,300 trained volunteers, serves more than 3,000 children and adults with disabilities each year.

Dietrich, who’s studying early childhood education at Front Range Community College, has no strength from her waist down. Spina bifida is a condition that affects around one of every 800 infants. The condition is caused by the backbone and spinal canal not closing before birth.

She was born missing muscles above a certain point in her spine, so Dietrich uses her arms for everything. At first, skiing seemed out of reach.

But the NSCD changed her mind. She rides the mountain on bi-skis, a type of skis attached to a small aluminum chair.

“I was very nervous about doing it all by myself because going downhill on snow is a little scary because you don’t know if you can stop,” she said.

But after working with NSCD volunteers and instructors, Dietrich now skis without fear.

She said overcoming her anxiety about skiing has transferred to other areas of her life, making her more confident.

NSCD CEO Becky Zimmermann, who started as a volunteer more than 10 years ago, said people with a diagnosis often feel alienated or depressed. It may be difficult for them to relate to their peers, she added.

But taking up a new sport, like skiing, can counteract some of those feelings, she said.

“Sports and recreation builds their confidence and it provides them a chance to have a shared activity with friends and family,” Zimmermann said. “A lot of what they end up doing is getting skills that improve other parts of their life. It could be as simple as confidence.”

Or feeling like they fit in. Just like other skiers and riders on the slopes, NSCD participants feel the adrenaline rush from speeding down the mountain and warming up with a warm beverage after a day of powder.

“I’m just like everybody else when I’m there, no matter if the other person is an able-bodied person or another disabled skier,” Dietrich said.

NSCD doesn’t separate its participants into separate groups based on their diagnosis, Zimmermann said. There are no labels, she said, and everyone can see how different people learn or respond to challenges.

“It creates that social comfort, but also inspiration,” she said.

NSCD has been recruiting volunteers from across the state. Boulder’s Pete Mercer has had a standing date with NSCD on Saturdays for the last 19 years.

Becoming a volunteer for NSCD requires attending up to six ski and snowboard clinics, and a 10-day commitment for the season.

The commitment NSCD asks of its volunteers helps Mercer remember what’s really important in his life, he said.

He and his wife, Maureen Rimar, both work full time, but make sure that working with NSCD participants and cultivating relationships with them remains at the top of their priority list.

“The first time they’ve ever seen a ski slope and they look up and say, ‘I’m supposed to do that?'” Mercer said. “Next thing you know, they’re coming down.”

Boulder High sophomore Jackson McCabe remembers his first group ski lesson with other kids his age when he was 6 years old.

“That didn’t go so well for me,” he said.

A year later, he began skiing with NSCD, and said he finally realized why other people thought skiing was so fun.

McCabe has cerebral palsy, and skis on a cross between racing and mogul skis. He likes to ride at his own pace, McCabe said, modestly, which the NSCD gives him the freedom to do.

“I’m not a great mogul skier,” he said. “But I like to ski a little bit of everything.”

–Follow Sarah Kuta on Twitter: @SarahKuta.

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