Ski instructor drawn to special clientele

By ABE FEIGENBAUM/Montana State News

Tom Alcorn is in charge of a whole lot of duct tape. Strips of it adorn a dilapidated chalkboard, aging gloves are granted extra life by silver rings around the fingers, and heaps of foam pads bear the indicative marks of the residual glue left behind by the universal adhesive.

The tape belongs to Vermont Adaptive Ski and Sport (VASS), a small non-profit group located in Pico, which provides lessons in skiing and other sports for handicapped individuals.  Tom Alcorn, the program coordinator, the man in charge of keeping Vermont Adaptive running smoothly, is a lifelong outdoor-sports enthusiast and an altruist.  Alcorn can’t be in it for the money; VASS is a low budget operation.  All the duct tape gives that away.

Mono-skis are laden with the stuff; bi-skis, dual-skis, ski-sleds, ski-bikes and outriggers all wear some kind of silver sash of tape, as if the functioning of this high-tech equipment ultimately comes down to the world’s most popular tape.

A mono-ski is essentially a chair on a ski, attached by a maze of aluminum bracings and springs and riddled with countless screws and pins.  With legs straight out and upper body leaned aggressively forward, a mono-skier sits in the “bucket,” a plastic seat which functions as a giant ski boot, transferring the subtle movement of the skier’s upper body to the ski.

On the arms are outriggers, small, cuffed crutches with mini-skis on the bottom, to help with balance and steering. Variations like bi-skis and dual-skis use two skis and are closer to the ground, making it easier for athletes with more debilitating injuries. These innovative types of skies have made it much more possible for those with disabilities to enjoy a sport that they would otherwise never experience. That is where Alcorn’s passion lies.

Alcorn has always been partial to this work. His stepbrother John was born with spina bifida, a birth defect that causes the spinal cord to develop improperly, but never let the disability affect him. John played little league baseball, did well in school, and grew up to become a successful business owner.  He died in 2003 at the age of 41.

Tom always saw that his stepbrother “didn’t allow his disability to keep him down.” He said feels lucky to have learned how capable disabled individuals can be.

Alcorn says Matty L. is one of his favorite skiers to work with. Birth defects have rendered Matty unable to communicate, and he has virtually no motor skills. He doesn’t show any emotion as he is hoisted into his bi-ski and strapped in. His helmet is duct taped to the back of the chair to keep his neck safe. Although Matty cannot speak, he can often be heard humming a faint tune to himself. He loves it when people sing to him on chairlift rides and, according to Alcorn, Grateful Dead tunes are his favorite.

On the slopes, Matty comes to life during what Alcorn calls “basically the coolest sled ride ever.” Volunteers guide his bi-ski down Pico’s lolling white hills. His humming gets louder as he stretches his arms to feel the wind rushing by.

“Being able to give Matty the rush that all of us skiers love is really an awesome privilege,” says weekend volunteer Matt Norden.

Alcorn wishes he could spend all his time on the slopes with clients like Matty, but another important part of Alcorn’s job is outreach.  Being able to communicate through a variety of disabilities while persuading individuals to achieve physical success they had long given up on is no easy task. When visiting Jerry L., Alcorn needed to be empathetic, but also inspiring, for the lifelong skier and snowboarder who’s ripped turns with boarding legend Jake Burton, worked at ski resorts up and down the East Coast, and suffered a stroke six years ago that left the right side of his body completely paralyzed.

This winter, the lethargy of his new nursing home life became too much, and a friend called Alcorn to arrange a meeting between him and Jerry.

“I always have to be ready for outreach,” said Alcorn, who instantly hit it off with Jerry in their first meeting at his nursing home. Despite his slow speech, oxygen tank and wheelchair, Alcorn could tell, “his spirit was being bridled in a way that was killing him.”

In late March of 2013, Jerry had his first bi-ski lesson at the age of 60. Special guiding and equipment enabled Jerry to make his way slowly down green trails his old self would have blown past. Now he admits to being a little frightened at the top of these runs, but an entourage of eight of his good buddies is usually there to cheer him on.

Usually by the end of the morning, he has made two full descents and is too tired to ski anymore. “It turned my life around and gave me a will to live,” says Jerry who has remained involved with VT Adaptive.

Alcorn said that on a spring morning last April, he received a call from Jerry. For the first time since the stroke, Jerry walked twelve feet.  “That’s the [stuff] I live for, man,” exclaims the youthful Samaritan. “That’s why I do this.”

It could certainly be said that this is Alcorn’s true calling, but program director and long-time friend, Erin Fernandez says more simply, “That’s just Tommy.”

– Edited by Morgan Brown


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