Kevin Sheehan has taken his ski bike down the same run at Eldora Mountain Resort countless times, but this time was different.
Riding the lift on the way up, Sheehan was surprised when a volunteer with Ignite Adaptive Sports sitting next to him turned and said, “It’s just you and me buddy.”
Normally four to five volunteers help guide and balance him to the base, but on that day Sheehan rode with just one person on the brakes behind him.
“God, it was huge,” says Sheehan, who is paralyzed on the left side of his body.
Ignite Adaptive Sports works in partnership with Eldora to help people living with disabilities experience outdoor winter sports.
The two organizations broke ground on May 17 for a new 12,000-square-foot facility designed to increase Ignite’s capacity to work with adaptive athletes by creating more accessible learning experiences.
The project was partially funded through Ignite raising $1.9 million from 600 individual and private donors for the project.
The community support has “been amazing,” says Carol Nickell, Ignite’s executive director. “Not surprising, but amazing.”
Nickell isn’t surprised because community support is woven into the fabric of Ignite’s volunteer-driven work, with clients like Sheehan at the center of their mission.
Sheehan’s paralysis came after he suffered a stroke on Christmas Day nine years ago, when he was 49 years old. “My big brother says, ‘Kev, get all the nieces and nephews ready for dinner. Turkey is coming out.’ I took a step on my left leg,” he says, “and that was it.”
Since recovery doesn’t happen when you sit around, Sheehan says, he started visiting Eldora in 2019 with no prior skiing experience.
Sheehan says the first time skiing with only one instructor earlier this year was “terrifying,” but he’ll remember the moment forever.
“I never thought in my wildest dreams after having that stroke that I’d ever have that kind of freedom.”
After getting down the slope, he did it four more times.
Born in Boulder
Ten students out of CU Boulder started Ignite in 1975, instructing 10 athletes with disabilities in the beginning, to more than 300 today.
The organization has two full-time paid staff, but is mostly powered by more than 250 volunteers who provide lessons for adaptive athletes interested in alpine and cross-country skiing, snowboarding, ski biking and snowshoeing opportunities, regardless of skill level.
Sheehan has become friends with many volunteers.
“They are what I call hope givers,” he says. “When you’re disabled, anybody that will give you the opportunity to get better, that gives hope and hope buys us time.”
He says the bad times — “the depression, the lying around and thinking, ‘God, I’m a worthless piece of shit’” — go away when he is skiing. It helps him see possibilities; a future.
“[The volunteers] treat me like a human. They don’t treat me like I’m a leper and can’t be touched,” he says. “And that’s important because people walk right past you when you’re disabled.”
Sheehan’s wife Cheryl says her husband’s enthusiasm for trying new things inspires other stroke survivors to keep going.
“To me that means the world that he’s still an inspiration for other people,” she says.
Prior to the new facility opening in 2024, the organization was based out of two temporary trailers in Eldora’s southeast parking area by the Nordic Center.
“Now we know as long as there’s snow on the mountain, we’ll be able to run adaptive ski programs,” says Nickell, adding she had some concerns about the current space reaching its “shelf life.”
The first floor of the facility will be Ignite’s new permanent home, with the second floor designated for Eldora’s Ski and Ride School. Other additions include a deck, public restrooms and food and beverage options, which are all new to the resort’s lower-mountain area.
“If you’re disabled, [that location is] important,” Sheehan says.
According to Hunter Wright, Eldora’s director of sustainability and project development, the building is also energy efficient and will feature rooftop solar panels. While Ignite raised nearly $2 million for the project, Wright wasn’t specific about how much funding came from Eldora, but says “it’s a lot.”
There will also be an elevator to a third level that will help athletes start at a higher point on the slope rather than walking up, or having volunteers push them up.
For athletes like Sheehan, experiencing snow sports in the mountains is nothing short of life changing. Now he can feel the snow vibrating underneath his left foot, something he thought he’d never feel again after his stroke.
The independence he feels when on his ski bike, especially recently, is helping him and Cheryl get back their lives together. Next year, his goal is to ski twice a week and eventually get to a place where he can ski alone with Cheryl.
“Maybe I won’t just be a patient anymore,” Sheehan says, “I’ll be a husband again.”