Challenge Aspen athletes seek medals, fun at NASTAR national championships |

Challenge Aspen athletes seek medals, fun at NASTAR national championships

Adaptive skiers, snowboarders compete at Snowmass this week

Challenge Aspen athlete Danielle Coulter and guide Zander Higbie race on the giant slalom course at Snowmass during NASTAR national championships on April 6, 2021. Kaya Williams/The Aspen Times

After taking a run Tuesday on the giant slalom course at Snowmass, Challenge Aspen athlete and alpine racer Chris Guay made a keen observation: “It’s not too often that you have professionals cheering you on.”

But that’s exactly the case at this week’s National Standard Racing (NASTAR) national championships, 41-year-old Guay said.

Along with a sizeable crew of Challenge Aspen staffers ringing cowbells at the finish line, Guay said he also felt support from U.S. Ski Team members Laurenne Ross and Paula Moltzan, who were on the course as pacesetters Tuesday morning.

Guay is racing in the cognitive adaptive division this week, one of eight athletes repping the Snowmass Village-based adaptive sports nonprofit Challenge Aspen on the course. (Nine qualified this year, but one, “Big Air” Max Grange, won’t be competing due to recent surgery.)

“It’s pretty cool” — especially so after national championships were canceled last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Guay said. This is the Special Olympics hall-of-famer’s third NASTAR national championships and fourth time qualifying; he has spent nearly two decades alpine skiing, about seven of them with Challenge Aspen.

He isn’t the only one appreciating the return of national championships after a one-year hiatus.

“The level of excitement is really high because of the cancellation last year,” said Deb Sullivan, the program director for Challenge Aspen’s Recreational, Educational and Cultural program.

News of the cancellation hit hard last year, just weeks after seven athletes qualified for nationals, which were supposed to be held at Snowmass, Sullivan said in a phone call last week: “I don’t think I’ve ever seen them so upset.”

When this year’s championships were announced, the athletes were “over the moon,” Sullivan said.

That the national championships are on home turf this year does make it a bit easier to get more athletes — and more staffers — out on the snow to race and support, Sullivan said.

Athletes also benefited from race-specific coaching that helped them pick up new skills to show off this year on the course.

A “very generous” donor supported two full-day lessons with Aspen Skiing Co. instructors and two weeks training with ski instructor and former racer Emilie Tait-Jamieson to prepare for the state and national NASTAR championships, Sullivan said. Tait-Jamieson offered racing-specific tips to competitors gearing up for the big day, from carving and developing their lines to making up time at the start, finish and other key spots on the course.

“Probably what it did more than anything was confidence-building with them,” Sullivan said.

That confidence has perhaps contributed to a bit of a friendly rivalry among some competitors, with a field of five cognitive adaptive racers in the male 21-29 age group. “That’s going to be some tight racing,” Sullivan said.

One of those racers is Tanner Jadwin, a 28-year-old cognitive adaptive skier; he learned how to ski through Challenge Aspen and has been racing since around his third season.

“It is kind of funny because I started this and I didn’t know what to expect at first,” he said. He found he had a skill for the sport — one he proved on the course Tuesday, when his lightning-fast time placed him in the caliber of Platinum-division racers.

Fellow Challenge Aspen athlete Justin Jolley followed close behind, eager to compare his times with his teammate Jadwin (both are in the male 21-29 cognitive adaptive division). There’s a bit of a friendly rivalry between the two, according to Jolley — but it’s one Jolley largely perpetuates on his own, Jadwin joked.

“I don’t do it as much for the medals as I do for the fun,” Jadwin said.

There’s a thrill that comes with skiing and competing too, according to some Challenge Aspen athletes.

“When I ski, I feel like I’m gliding. … I just love it,” said Jen Arkin, who competed in the visually impaired division with her guide, Wendy Hazard. This is Arkin’s third year qualifying for nationals. The 52-year-old has been skiing since she was 8 and joined Challenge Aspen in 2012; she decided to start racing after Sullivan recommended it several years back.

“It’s addictive,” Arkin said of the sport.

Danielle Coulter is likewise hooked — she hit the course seven times Tuesday for lap after lap out of the start gate. (Racers are scored based on the best of two runs but can take more as time and conditions allow.)

The 29-year-old adaptive snowboarder has been shredding on snow for nearly two decades using a custom rig with an upright bar that she uses to carve around the gates; guide Zander Higbie with Aspen Skiing Co. follows close behind. What keeps her coming back out on the mountain?

“The speed, the freedom,” Coulter said.

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