For skier with spina bifida, new heights are reached at Challenge Alaska
Everyone has ups and down, but for Anna Boltz, a skiing program in Alaska is proving to be the ultimate challenge, while also helping make sure the teen has many more highs than lows during Alaska's winter season.
"Skiing has always been a family activity for us, ever since I was two," said Leah Boltz, Anna's mom, "and we were determined to make it a family activity for all of us."
Leah and Anna's father, Nate Boltz - who is executive director for Challenge Alaska, which focuses on getting kids into adaptive sports - put their daughter in skis as a toddler. The setup, however, was far from ordinary: Instead of the usual two skis most people utilize, Anna was put into a sit-ski to start her life on the slopes.
"We pushed her out here in a little sled," Leah reminisced, "and she was so small at age two that they had to duct tape her in, but we took her out. That was a proud moment."
Anna was born with spina bifida, a condition that affects the spinal cord and can severely affect development. In her case, it stole nearly all of her motor function below her waist.
Her focus, however, is what she can control, and skiing has become one of those things. She was skiing up to the very end of the season - which was cut a bit short - at Alyeska this year.
"My parents just like to ski, so they wanted to find somewhere where I could ski," Anna said. "It's really fun."
Anna, who is now 13, recently graduated into a mono ski setup, which is designed so that she sits low in a bucket seat that's perched on top of a single ski.
"The first time she got in a mono ski and discovered independence," Leah said, "you could tell, as she started singing down the mountain, that she was free and independent.
"There was a moment when I realized she was faster than me," Leah laughed. "I was like, 'Oh, hold on, here we go!'"
At Challenge Alaska, the Boltz family has found a second home, and a whole team they can depend upon, including a crew of instructors who have been with Anna every step of the way.
"It's pretty incredible," said Chaela Liss of Anna. Liss has been with the program for five years and is also a part of the ski team, just as Anna is after joining this past season. "We have a lot of fun. She's little Anna Banana, and we just have a blast.
"Not all days are the best days for everybody," Liss said. "We have hard days, we have great days, and we have everything in between, but at the end of the day, those kids leave with such a big smile on their face."
Liss said Anna has been making strides, improving in leaps and bounds since the two were teamed up at Challenge Alaska. They do lots of black diamond runs together, work on getting on and off the lift more smoothly in special gear together, and tackle the mountain as a pair.
"Anna just has no fear and just goes for it," Liss said. "We laugh a lot and we have a lot of fun and that's what it's about. And you just go, get a little better each time, do harder stuff, and we all do it together."
With Liss, Anna has been learning how to go through racing gates and cruise down the courses that are set up for racers. Giant slalom, Anna said, is her favorite event after one season of racing.
"It feels great," Anna said. "It takes a lot of confidence and work."
While the main mission is to have fun - and perhaps get better at skiing while doing it - Anna's parents said she has seemingly caught the competitive bug.
"Through doing this (with Challenge Alaska), Anna's been introduced to several paralympians, who have been incredibly positive influences in her life," Nate said, "and that's ignited a bit of a competitive spirit in her. She's still at the age where it's still all about having fun on the mountain, but we're starting to see that competitive spark in her eye, and that's been fun."
"She realizes she likes to win," Leah laughed. "A lot!
"It's not only been about skiing and recreation," Leah added, referring to Challenge Alaska as a whole. "We have a family up here. She has role models. She is allowed to achieve and take risks and see what's possible for her."
Anna, a seventh grader and straight-A student who sings in the school choir and plays the violin, also plays sled hockey, wheelchair basketball, and wheelchair soccer. She participates in hand cycling, cross country running, track and field, Nordic skiing, and waterskiing, too.
On the slopes, however, she seems to have found an especially welcoming home and a sport to call her own.
"Every day that we're out here," Nate said, "it's truly astounding. We're always proud of your own children, but seeing an activity that Anna's able to excel at, keep up with her peers and participate like any other kid, is truly special."
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