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Paralympic athlete returns to Snowmass, helps his students learn to ski

Scott Jernigan turns right on his skis down the Elk Camp Meadows run on his second day of skiing in front of the Elk Camp Restaurant.
Halle Zander
Aspen Public Radio
Scott Jernigan, left, skis down the Elk Camp Meadows run on the Snowmass Ski Area on Sunday, Dec. 11. The nonprofit Challenge Aspen hosted Jernigan and his classmates from the Tennessee School for the blind over the weekend, teaching them how to ski.

Joseph Gray was a student at the Tennessee School for the Blind in 2004 when he first traveled to Snowmass Village to learn how to ski.

“It was the first time I’d been this far west, first time I’d been on a plane,” Gray said. “Being from Nashville, I had never seen this much snow before. I mean, I was always like a daredevil, but this really kind of tested me — skiing.”

He remembers how quickly he fell in love with the sport, thanks in part to his Challenge Aspen instructor.

“I mean, the guy, he probably talked to me for about 45 minutes before we went out on the snow — just to get to know me,” Gray said. “And once we got out there, with the way he was instructing me, I was on Sam's Knob my second day.”

The Sam’s Knob chairlift takes skiers to the top of one of the peaks at the Snowmass Ski Area where they can ski on intermediate and expert terrain, which is a big feat for someone’s second day on the slopes.

After skiing in Snowmass, Gray went on to compete in the paralympics in track and field.

“I remember the night before I literally just dreamed about skiing,” Gray said. “I always tap back into this, like, just this place — the memories. Because, you know, being visually-impaired, you hear more people tell you what you can't do than what you can do. And then thinking about how I did something that a lot of my sighted peers haven't even done, you know, it was just a huge boost in confidence.”

Joseph Gray poses outside the offices of Challenge Aspen in Snowmass Village.
Halle Zander
Aspen Public Radio
Joseph Gray readies for his second day on the slopes at the Snowmass Ski Area outside the Challenge Aspen offices on Sunday, Dec. 11. Gray is a visually impaired skier who first learned how to ski in Snowmass in 2004.

In 2012, Gray became a teacher for the Tennessee School for the Blind where he coached visually-impaired students in track and field.

Almost every winter since the late 90s, the school has brought a group of students to Snowmass to learn how to ski with Challenge Aspen.

Now he's in North Carolina teaching at the Governor Morehead School, where he helped raise the funds for four students to join the trip to Snowmass.

Deb Sullivan is the rec program director at Challenge Aspen, and she worked with Gray coordinating the students' visit.

“He is such a networker,” Sullivan said. “I mean, I think he could probably talk you out of your skis right now.

She says that various levels of visual impairment can be a benefit when learning how to ski.

“Blind folks or people that have various levels of visual impairment might actually have an advantage,” she said. “They're always very conscious about what's under their feet, you know, whether it's gravel or concrete or grass or sand. And so now it’s snow, and it slides.”

Students with visual impairments are paired with an instructor or a buddy when learning how to ski.

Students can hold onto the instructors arms and shoulders, or they can both hold onto a pole while moving down the hill.

And once the adaptive skier has progressed to a certain level, those buddies can ski behind or beside them.

Buddies will describe the terrain and tell the skier when to turn and when to stop.

A number of students said they were scared to get on the hill for the first time, but most of them quickly learned to love it.

“I started off really terrified yesterday and part way throughout this morning, but other than that, I'm absolutely in love with it,” said Scott Jernigan, a student at the Tennessee School for the Blind.

Jernigan’s classmate Dylan McCleary said, “Honestly you have to keep your balance while bending your knees so that you don’t fall or slide backwards, but other than that it feels good to ski for the first time.”

When asked what she loved most about skiing, student Leah Mayberry said, “Everything. Just sliding, falling, it's really just like a water slide, but it's really just a lot of snow.”

Leah Mayberry lines up in between two instructors to learn how to ski down a small slope at the Elk Camp Meadows.
Halle Zander
Aspen Public Radio
Leah Mayberry prepares to ski down an incline at the Snowmass Ski Area with the guidance of two instructors with Challenge Aspen on Dec. 11. Mayberry was enthusiastic and positive presence on the slopes.

Sullivan said one student in particular had shown a lot of growth during this trip, Sanya Neema.

Neema is a senior at the Tennessee School for the Blind, and Sullivan said she was curious how Neema would react on the slopes.

“Sanya has been really quiet, and she's really timid, and she's super careful about every step she takes with her cane and steps getting into the van and out of the van,” Sullivan said. “So she's just been very, very careful.”

Neema quickly learned to thrive in her skis.

“I was really scared,” Neema said. “I'm still scared today, but when I started it, it was awesome.”

Sonja Neema poses with her Challenge Aspen instructor with a thumbs up at the Elk Camp Meadows beginner's area.
Halle Zander
Aspen Public Radio
Sonja Neema, right, learned how to ski with Kaylin Williams at the Snowmass Ski Area on Dec. 11, despite her initial nerves.

On her second day of skiing, Neema was doing well and taking laps on the “magic carpet” — a small conveyor belt that brings students up a small slope at the Elk Camp Meadows beginner area.

Erin Loftus works for Challenge Aspen and says the carpet can be one of the toughest challenges for new skiers.

“I think that even when we're with able-bodied people or just volunteers,” Loftus said. “Yeah, the magic carpet is always the hardest part of the day. It's just something about, you know, getting on and moving on an incline, especially when you don't have your full visual field.”

Sonja Neema prepares to ride the magic carpet at the Elk Camp Meadows ski area.
Halle Zander
Aspen Public Radio
Sonja Neema and Kaylin Williams prepare to load the magic carpet—a conveyor belt that transports skiers to the top of a small slope at the Snowmass Ski Area.

Neema added that the carpet was difficult, but it didn’t keep her from enjoying the sport.

“Like the skiing is the best part of the whole trip,” Neema said. “And like, I'm so glad that I got to do this new adventure, you know, without my parents. Because I've done many other adventures before, like parasailing, roller coasters, but I've never done this much of a winter sport before, so I’m really excited.”

She feels there’s practical lessons from this experience that she can take home with her.

“We have a big hill in our backyard,” Neema said. “When it snows, [I can] use the techniques to go up and down the hill. I've also learned that I really enjoy skiing better than sledding, because I feel like in skiing you can have more control over your body versus sledding.”

Neema added that when she gets scared, she has a bit of a mantra.

“I tell myself that I have survived before, and I will survive,” Neema said. “And the worst that will happen is I might fall, but that will be okay.”

Gray says when his students stepped into their ski boots and got comfortable on the snow, he was more proud in that moment than from any of his paralympic accomplishments.

“I'm visually impaired, so I know what those, you know, the steps are that they're taking,” Gray said. “And like I said, just to share this experience with them is just, to me, is monumental. It's this to me, this is better than any gold medal world ranking, anything that I've ever had before. This, this tops all of that.”

Halle is an award-winning journalist and the All Things Considered anchor for Aspen Public Radio. She has been recognized for her work by the Public Media Journalists Association and the Colorado Broadcasters Association. Before she began working full-time with Aspen Public Radio in September 2021, Halle was a freelance broadcast journalist for both Aspen Public Radio and KDNK. Halle studied environmental analysis at Pitzer College. She was an educator at the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies and at the Andy Zanca Youth Empowerment program, where she taught youth radio and managed a weekly public affairs show.