Six years ago, Mat Rhode was a student at Carthage College in Kenosha, Wis., when a car accident left him with a severe head injury. After six weeks in a coma, he awoke to a life upended by memory loss and weakened muscles and facing years of physical therapy.

On a recent weekend, Rhode, 28, of Edina began his sixth year of training at Hyland Ski and Snowboard Area in Bloomington. Rhode is a downhill racer in the winter sports program run by the Courage Kenny Rehabilitation Institute, based in Minneapolis. Recently the program also began its yearly lessons for adaptive skiing and snowboarding at ski hills in the Twin Cities metro area and in Duluth.

The program, which is entering its 45th year, teaches people with cognitive and physical disabilities — from quadriplegia to blindness to autism — how to snowboard or ski, standing up or with equipment that allows them to recline in a seat, using body weight to steer as one might do on a motorcycle.

Rhode’s journey to racing was years in the making. After six months of inpatient physical therapy and the start of what would be years more of outpatient rehabilitation, he joined the institute’s eight-week ski lesson program. Rhode had skied before his accident, but with less strength and balance than before, he needed his skis to be tethered together.

“It felt really relieving, to think that I can do this,” he said of his first time back skiing.

But Rhode, who labors to speak as a result of his accident, wasn’t satisfied with the tethers. After rehabilitation exercises, as well as extra running and working out in the offseason, he was able to begin skiing without any aid.

“It’s cool to be able to do the things you used to be able to do,” he said.

Joining a culture

That’s the kind of outcome that Nels Dyste, the program’s coordinator, said it can achieve. He said the rigor of skiing and snowboarding improves strength, balance and other outcomes for people with disabilities that complement physical therapy or just lifelong fitness.

But the main benefit, said Dyste, comes from getting to enjoy physical activity and be part of a community. That’s especially important because Minnesota winters can be long and isolating, and people with disabilities often don’t have the same outlets that able-bodied people do.

When they get to the ski hill, said Dyste, the students — who range from age 6 to above 80 — become part of the skiing culture. “We’re in the same chalet, same chairlift, same runs.”

“Being able to say, ‘I went skiing,’ ” said Dyste, “That’s a really cool thing for someone to say.”

Rebuilding confidence

For two months of weekly private lessons, the institute’s program is cheap — less than half the cost of lift tickets, instruction and rentals at regular prices. Dyste said the institute is able to provide that partly because of grant funding and donations, both cash and in-kind from ski shops and the ski hills. The other part is a corps of about 300 volunteers — two for every student — spread through each of the program’s sites.

Susan Hodder, who also works in adaptive skiing programs at Hyland, has been a volunteer instructor since 1984. She teaches snowboard and bi-ski lessons two nights a week, in addition to the ­ongoing training she receives each Tuesday night.

Once, said Hodder, a boy with a prosthetic leg came to the program expecting to use the sitting bi-ski rig. But he wasn’t paralyzed, and Hodder persuaded him and his mother that he would be able to ski standing up. And he was.

“You could just see the confidence rebuilding with in him,” said Hodder, who also volunteers for adaptive water ski and sailing lessons. “[The students] are just amazing people to work with.”

Dyste, the program coordinator, emphasizes that the rigor of skiing and snowboarding is even harder for people with disabilities, which makes their achievements even more impressive. Skiing with prosthetics, he said, requires both “phenomenal balance” and “really good strength.” So while the institute’s program is not licensed physical therapy — nor is it reimbursable as a health care expense — it does enable students “to work within their own body,” he said, and “is part of the rehabilitation ­process.”

Back in the game

That has been true for Mat Rhode, who is an impressively active person by any standard. His Facebook page features photos of him backpacking, at the lake and smiling in front of mountains. “I just love getting out there,” he said.

After his accident, it took Rhode a lot to get on the path to enjoy the things he used to do. “Hard work,” he said, and his faith are what got him to where he is today, which includes a job and graduating last spring from Anoka-Ramsey Community College with a degree in theater.

Last year, Rhode also competed in two downhill ski races. This year, with more hard work, he plans to do at least three or four more.


Graison Hensley Chapman is a Northfield freelance writer. He can be reached at