Hal O’Leary: The father of adaptive skiing who broke down barriers in the ski industry
“Hal, I hate your guts.”
That was the first reaction Hal O’Leary received when he ventured out to create a new program to teach disabled people how to ski on the slopes of Winter Park Resort in January 1970.
Days earlier, George Engel, the former owner of the Winter Park Ski School, spoke in front of 65 of his employees and asked for a volunteer to be in charge of 23 amputees from Children’s Hospital who were visiting in the coming days. O’Leary alone raised his hand.
The children arrived Jan. 21, on a particularly cold and windy day. O’Leary, didn’t have any prior experience dealing with children or people with disabilities, and he struggled.
One boy fell, and with his glasses tottering on the tip of his nose, looked up at O’Leary and delivered his initial impression: “Hal, I hate your guts.”
“I said OK, we’re going to quit,” O’Leary recalled. “It was about 11 o’clock, and we went back out at 1 o’clock on the hill. I decided I’m just going to put them on the chair. They’ve never been on a chair before. But they’ve learned the technique of three-track, and I swear to God when they were bailing off the chair I thought they were going to kill themselves.
“But we got back up on the skis, and starting moving down the hill with the technique that I had taught them in the morning. They were just yelling and screaming, and their clothes were flying in the air. And the little guy came back and said, ‘Hal, I really don’t hate you.'”
O’Leary didn’t know it at the time, but he had just founded what would eventually develop into the National Sports Center for the Disabled, one of the largest therapeutic recreation and adaptive sports agencies in the world. His journey to revolutionize the skiing industry, to bring a new world of movement to people of all disabilities and break down worldwide barriers of prejudice had just begun.
O’Leary was born in Montreal in May 1927, where he learned to ski at the age of three. His father, Harry, was an engineer, and his mother, Gladys, an entertainer. He earned a degree in business from the University of Montreal, while working at Goose Bay, a Canadian Air Force Base in Labrador. But since he was little, the American west called to him.
He immigrated to the United States in 1949, and moved out west to Colorado.
“I used to read all the time about the west,” said O’Leary. “There’s so much about the west. The Grand Canyon, Lewis and Clark. There were wonderful books on Lewis and Clark coming out and being in the west when there were millions of buffalo roaming. I read a great deal about it and was totally fascinated, especially watching cowboy movies and the way they were filmed, and the beauty of the west.”
O’Leary became a certified ski instructor at Ski Idlewild before becoming a ski instructor at Winter Park Resort. He began teaching people with disabilities to ski in 1970, though, to his own admission, the process was initially difficult given his lack of experience with disabled people.
But learning to teach disabled people was only half the battle.
O’Leary said that in the onset of the program he faced resistance from able-bodied skiers, ski patrollers, and others who felt that disabled people didn’t belong on the mountain.
“When I started them on the hill there were a lot of people that opposed it,” O’Leary said. “They felt that they would slow the chairlifts down, and that they would be in the way. They said it’s dangerous having a visually impaired person on the hill. And then I started putting people with Down syndrome and developmental disorders on the mountain, and they thought it was no place for those people.
“It was so early. But when you can go out there and show a person with a disability on the hill it gave the able-bodied people a better perception of what its like to have a disability, and they can start to say they’re no different than us.”
O’Leary quickly became the authority on teaching disabled people how to ski. His book on adaptive skiing, Bold Tracks, has been translated into numerous different languages and is still being used to guide instructors on how to teach skiing to those with a myriad of disabilities.
He also began to invent his own equipment to adapt to the different needs of his students, creating a cord between skis to help with lateral control, adding skis to walkers and creating sleds for paraplegics.
“They taught me,” said O’Leary. “They educated me on their needs, and I listened and watched. Now I can see someone walk and I can tell immediately if they’re short on one side or if they need adaptive equipment. They taught me what their needs were, and how I could adapt to their needs to make it a success for them to have movement on the hill.”
O’Leary took his teachings around the world, accepting invitations to help set up adaptive ski programs in over 30 countries in Asia, Europe, South America and Oceania. “All of these programs are still going. From Russia to South America down in Brazil, and all along that area they’re still going. Anywhere there was snow I invaded. And I supplied them with equipment sometimes. But it’s been a real trip. Just sitting back and seeing that the program today is the largest in the world of its kind.”
STILL GOING STRONG
The program is still going well at home. Today the NSCD at Winter Park Resort boasts more than 3,000 children and adults with disabilities participating each year, has over 800 volunteers dedicating over 30,000 hours annually and has evolved into a year-round program offering biking, mountain climbing and other summer activities. O’Leary estimates that he alone has personally worked with over 20,000 people over the program’s 47 years.
For his accomplishments in the field O’Leary has been awarded a myriad of accolades, including an induction into the Colorado Ski & Snowboard Hall of Fame, the U.S. Ski Hall of Fame and the U.S. Disabled Ski Hall of Fame. More recently he was awarded the 2017 Pioneer Award from the Winter Park & Fraser Chamber of Commerce.
Aside from his time at the NSCD, O’Leary is also credited, along with Kathy Gingery, with helping to found the Shining Stars Foundation, a Colorado based non-profit that provides recreational programs and camps for children facing cancer and other life threatening illnesses.
Today O’Leary still serves as a board member for the Shining Stars Foundation, and still works closely with the NSCD helping with fundraising efforts.
In his free time O’Leary enjoys skiing, painting and attending operas and Broadway productions that come through Denver. Despite his age, O’Leary doesn’t feel like he’s slowed down.
“I’m older than Jesus,” he joked. “But I cannot identify with 90. Honest to God I can’t, and I don’t. I just keep on rolling. But looking back it’s a wonderful feeling of accomplishment. Most of all for what I’ve been able to do for other people.”
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Indie folk band Birdtalker is making three Colorado tour stops this weekend starting with Aspen’s Wheeler Opera House on Friday.