PARK CITY — Tucked out of sight behind the ice rink, sports fields and dog park at Quinn’s Junction, the National Ability Center — the place that takes the dis out of disability — is easily the most unpretentious big deal in town.
For nearly three decades, wonderful things have been happening here. Kids with autism shout with glee aboard a horse that understands them perfectly. Paraplegics ski as if they are Jean Claude Killy or maybe even Ted Ligety. Soldiers back from the front with wounds bound in post-traumatic stress discover emotional freedom by cycling, rock climbing and sailing.
Every year, people of all ages with all sorts of so-called disabilities walk through the front door into a big ol’ you-can-do-it embrace. At a rate of more than 200 participants per month, they ski, snowboard, swim, cycle, ride horses, rock climb, play sled hockey, shoot bows and arrows, and run through the ropes course as if they’re Tony Horton himself.
And yet, cars whiz by out on Highway 248, heading into town via Park City’s back door, oblivious that they’re passing one of the largest adaptive sports programs — and the largest adaptive ski program — in the entire world.
There are no spotlights. No monuments. Call the people who run the National Disability Center a lot of things, but do not call them glory hounds. When it comes to bragging, they have a disability.
It’s been that way since the beginning. Twenty-eight years ago, a woman named Meeche White and her then-husband Peter Badewitz moved to Utah from Colorado with the express purpose of helping people ski who didn’t have full use of their arms, legs or torso.
They picked Park City for two reasons: because of its proximity to the best skiing on Earth and because of the large population base along the Wasatch Back and Front that might be interested in their services.
White and Badewitz knew firsthand the positive things that happen when you emphasize ability instead of disability. Peter had served in Vietnam and lost a leg. He returned home, adapted, learned to ski race, and starred as a member of the U.S. Disabled Ski Team, winning four national championships during his eight years in the program. Meeche had studied therapeutic recreation in college and with her husband became a ski instructor for those with disabilities.
Together, without fanfare, they started the Park City Handicapped Sports Association. Headquarters was the kitchen of their Park City home. They taught 45 ski lessons that first winter, most of them to disabled Vietnam vets.
From that inauspicious 1985 beginning a grand cause was launched. When Meeche and Peter separated Peter didn’t remain involved with the organization, but Meeche did, overseeing the evolution that turned the PCHSA into the National Ability Center. She led the way for 23 years until stepping down as the NAC’s CEO in 2008. She has since moved to Mexico, where she remains an honorary board member and is helping to develop adapted sports programs in Mexico in coordination with the NAC.
All sorts of milestones have occurred in the NAC’s brief but significant history. In 1996 a family anonymously donated 26 acres of land on the east side of town. A couple of years after that the Bronfman family stepped up to build the residential lodge. Other donors, from the Nancy & Richard Marriott Foundation to the George & Dolores Eccles Foundation to the L.S. Peery Foundation and companies such as Questar helped with the administration offices, the 17,000-square-foot indoor equestrian arena and other buildings that form the NAC’s campus. Rocky Mountain Power built the ropes course and sun shelter. Geary Construction erected the road that accesses the property. Exxon donated the steel pipe for the outdoor equestrian center, which an army of volunteers put together.
The list goes on and on, but it’s a hard list to find. There is virtually nothing on the National Ability Center grounds, or written up in their website, that draws attention to any of the selfless deeds, and the people who did them, that have made the whole impossible venture possible. Finding out the above history was like searching for Atlantis.
But if they aren’t self-congratulatory, they are sociable. On Saturday, June 1, the National Ability Center will host its fifth-annual Barn Party. The fundraiser, scheduled from 5:30 to 9:30 p.m., will include a barbecue, petting zoo, line dancing, mechanical bull riding, parade and saloon — and, most especially, a tribute to the amazing horses and riders in the equestrian program. The public is cordially invited and all proceeds will go straight into the nonprofit’s coffers. Learn more at discoverNAC.org. It’s your chance to come and meet the people tucked out of sight who daily make disabilities disappear.
Lee Benson's About Utah column runs Mondays. EMAIL: firstname.lastname@example.org