On the first run down Buck Hill, Anikah Schmidt was nervous. The 8-year-old had never tried downhill skiing, mostly because of balance problems following surgery to remove a brain tumor.
But by the time she reached the bottom — in a sit-down sled with volunteers skiing fore and aft — Schmidt gave her mom two thumbs up. And by the time her mother called her in for lunch, Schmidt was calling the sled her royal "carriage."
"She told us we're now supposed to call her Princess Anikah," said her mother, Vanessa Schmidt, of Prior Lake.
Adaptive sports have grown in visibility and popularity over the past two decades, part of a movement to end the segregation of people with disabilities. But the high cost of equipment can make it prohibitive for children to even experiment and see if they like them.
Gillette Children's Specialty Healthcare in St. Paul, a hospital that specializes in children with disabilities, has adopted a one-two punch to solve the problem. It created events such as the Buck Hill children's ski day on Jan. 27, where its patients can try sports, and then raises money to finance continued participation if they get hooked.
Since 2015 the hospital has maintained an adaptive technology and sports fund, which last year alone issued $114,000 in charitable grants that helped 50 families buy either specialized sports equipment for their kids, or iPads or other devices to help them communicate. The hospital also provides a bicycle expo so children can experiment with different kinds of bikes.
"We're talking about doing a water ski event," said Lynn Carpentier, a Gillette business development executive.
Many patients treated at Gillette have cerebral palsy, a brain disorder that causes rigid muscles and reduced mobility, but others are paralyzed or have disabling conditions such as scoliosis or spina bifida.
How much adaptive sports help is unclear. Researchers in Washington reported in 2015 that adaptive sports helped adults keep jobs, and Brazilian researchers reported last year that sports improved the mobility and mood of children with cerebral palsy. But many of the studies are small in scope, and British researchers last year questioned whether they adequately account for vast differences in disability levels among research participants.
Not that such nuances matter to families such as the Schmidts. They were relieved when Anikah was declared cancer free after surgeons removed her tumor, and ever since have sought opportunities for her to do all the things her siblings can do. She tried adaptive T-ball last summer, but finding winter activities has been more challenging.
"We just want her to be active and to get outside," her mother said.
'Same as other kids'
Logan Gostovich needed coaxing to try skiing again. The 12-year-old has cerebral palsy, and was miserable the first time he tried skiing standing up as part of a school field trip. At the Buck Hill outing last week, he used a sit-ski — a specially designed sled with outrigger skis on both sides that he could use to steer.
"He hates being looked at as different," said his mother, Beckie Gostovich, of Somerset, Wis. "He wants to do the same things that others do."
While the Gillette fund buys adaptive bicycles for patients, the sit-skis can be too expensive — $5,000 or more — considering the number of times that any one child might use one. Instead, Gillette's fund pays the kids' entrance fee into Padraig's Place, a program that provides sit-skis and volunteers at Buck Hill. The nonprofit also provided ski equipment and support for Gillette's Jan. 27 event.
Some kids start the Gillette ski day with sit-skis and then try the standing-up version, said Dr. Marcie Ward, a pediatric rehabilitation specialist at Gillette. Others just enjoy the ride. Many are reluctant at the beginning, but she can recall only one patient over the years who wasn't giddy by the end.
"Usually, by the time they get done with one run," she said, "there's nothing to it after that."
Jeremy Olson • 612-673-7744