Disabled Sports: Early History

Adaptive sports began as a means to rehabilitate veterans from World War II, Korea, and the Vietnam War. Today, Disabled Sports USA serves both civilians and the latest military who have sustained permanent physically disabling injuries while in Iraq and across the globe.

Among the early pioneers was Jim Winthers, a WWII veteran who was a member of the U.S. 10th Mountain Division – the Skiing 10th, an elite group specifically trained for alpine warfare. In 1953 Winthers was director of the Donner Ski Ranch in Northern California. Reunited with two buddies who lost legs in the war, and using techniques he saw in Europe, he taught them to ski on one leg.

He later was sought out by Jim Graham, a former skier who lost his leg to cancer and wanted to learn Winthers’ techniques. Two years later, Graham and Winthers and two others began developing techniques to impart skiing and teaching methods at weeklong clinics.

Eventually, Graham and Dan McPherson became the first and second certified ski instructors with a disability.

In 1967, the National Amputee Skiers Association (NASA) was founded with three chapters, and later renamed as the National Handicapped Sports and Recreation Association (NHSRA).

Ben Allen, another protégé of Winthers, became another one of the few certified ski instructors in the country. In 1970, he moved from the West to attend Tufts University Medical School. Wanting to establish an amputee ski program in the East, he contacted the Haystack Mountain Ski Area in Vermont. With Fran Rebstad, he established the first official handicapped ski program, known as the Haystack Chapter of the National Inconvenienced Sportsmen’s Association.

Doug Pringle is the current president of the founding chapter, Disabled Sports USA Far West. A disabled Vietnam vet, Pringle became hooked on skiing through the outreach of NASA. He joined NASA, and became its president in 1970. He further expanded the network to 25 chapters over the next six years. As a member of the Professional Ski Instructor’s Association (PSIA), he expanded Learn to Ski clinics and authored numerous manuals about disabled skiing. In 1988, PSIA voted to recognize NHSRA’s Adaptive Ski Instructor Certification program.

The influx of wounded from the Vietnam War saw the ski program develop even more. Many of the wounded became involved in skiing because major military hospitals were including the sport as part of rehabilitation training, most notably Fitzsimmons General Hospital in Denver, Letterman Army Hospital in San Francisco and Valley Forge Army Hospital in Pennsylvania.

One of the Vietnam War amputees who was a program participant was Kirk Bauer, now Executive Director of Disabled Sports USA. Bauer was a Winthers’ protégé who, after recovering from his injuries, moved to the East Coast to attend Boston University law school. He then became one of the leaders of the New England Handicapped Sportsmen’s Association handicapped teaching program. In 1982, he was tapped to lead NHSRA as the director. Through the years, Kirk steered the organization to include summer sports and fitness programs. In 1994, NHSRA was renamed Disabled Sports USA (DS/USA), which now includes 91 chapters in 36 states.

Initially involved primarily in winter sports activities, DS/USA chapters now promote year-round recreational activities and various levels of competitive sports. DS/USA has gained national recognition for its pioneering role in developing physical fitness programs for people with disabilities, the provision of adaptive programs and it’s advocacy for people with disabilities in relation to sports and recreation. In 1997, DS/USA launched Challenge Magazine.

Among those who were key in fostering disabled sports in the early years included:

Jack “Action Jackson” Benedick, double amputee as a result of a Vietnamese landmine came to the skiing program through the Fitzsimmons General Hospital in Denver, which arranged for disabled veterans to ski in Arapahoe Basin. He was a leader in the development of competition for disabled skiers. He was president of the Rocky Mountain Handicapped Sportsmen’s Association, one of the thirteen original NHSRA chapters. In 1979, became president of the national organization and then competition director in 1983 prior to the United States Ski Association hiring him as USSA Director of Disabled Skiing.

Dr. Duane Messner, an orthopedic surgeon was instrumental in moving the Denver Children’s Hospital ski program to Winter Park. He was team doctor with the U.S. Ski Team and team doctor at the 1968 Winter Olympics in Grenoble.

Ed Lucks devised a major improvement to the outrigger. He rigged a plunger that could be lowered through a hole in the ski tip so the outrigger could double as a crutch for crossing flats or climbing hills. He also pioneered in such areas as skiing for the blind and for people with neuro-muscular dysfunction.

Col. Paul Brown, Chief of Orthopedic Surgery at Fitzsimmons General Hospital who had been instrumental in generating recreational activities to help his patients’ confidence and self-esteem. He had heard of amputee skiing in Germany. Arranged for programming at Arapahoe Basin.

William Stanek, director of the Children’s Amputee Clinic at Denver Children’s Hospital, worked with Paul Brown for amputee skiing programs.

Hal O’Leary, founded the National Sports Center for the Disabled (NSCD) at Winter Park in 1970. Today a team of 19 PSIA certified instructors and more than 1,000 volunteers are part of NSCD. The NSCD’s world-recognized recreation program at Winter Park provides innovative outdoor recreation for adults and children with physical and mental disabilities. O’Leary was the inspiration for a series of dolls with disabilities. Called Hal’s Pals, the huggable dolls were made with a disability – amputee, visually impaired, wheelchair user, hearing impaired, and leg braces. They were created by Susan Andersen in the early 1980s and were designed for disabled children to see positive images of their own disability; as a teaching tool for children with no disabilities; and for professionals and disabled adults involved in various programs for the disabled.

Bill Stieler, WWII amputee, sponsored the first ski clinic at Boyne Mountain with Hal O’Leary and Ed Lucks. Stieler traveled, wrote, spoke and campaigned extensively to promote handicapped skiing in Michigan.



There was much work to do in the early years to develop disabled sports in accessibility, adaptive equipment, instruction and techniques. It was also important to develop organizations or chapters so those interested would have a place for support and inclusion. While it’s hard to imagine such discrimination today, in the 1980s, mono- and sit-skiers were not allowed on the slopes on the weekends, and some areas didn’t allow mono- or sit-skiers on the slopes at all.

Groundbreakers bringing professionalism, integrity and acceptance and respect to the world of winter and summer disabled sports include in alphabetical order:

Gwen Allard – Ski teaching professional for more than 30 years. Former PSIA-E Executive Director, director of the PSIA-E Education Foundations and, president of the Adaptive Sports Foundation at Ski Windham (N.Y.) Inducted into the National Disabled Ski Hall of Fame in 2001.

Bill Bowness – Member of the U.S. Disabled Alpine Ski Team from 1992-1996. Contributing author to the 2nd edition of the PSIA Adaptive Ski Manual. Member of the Board of Directors of the Water Skiers with Disabilities Association, a division of USA Water Ski. Former member of the U.S. Disabled Water Ski Team and three-time world record holder in slalom, and a single world record holder in the jump event. Nine time individual World Champion in slalom, trick and jump. 2001 and 2002 Overall National Champion at the U.S. Disabled National Water Ski Championships. Wrote adaptive coaching manual for water ski instructors.

Bonnie St. John Deane – Silver and bronze medal winner in the 1984 Paralympics. Rhodes scholar, Harvard honors graduate, and former White House official. Motivational speaker.

Paul DePace – Weightlifter. U.S. Olympic Committee board of directors 1998-2003 and chairman of the board of Wheelchair Sports USA 1988-2005. Represented International Stoke Mandeville Wheelchair Sports Federation on the Executive Board of the International Paralympic Committee 2001-2005.

Paul DiBello – Four-time world disabled ski racing champion. Developed the National Sports Center for the Disabled Racing Program in 1984, the largest disabled ski competition program in the country and the only ski operation that offers year-round race training and coaching to athletes with disabilities. The program is home to the Winter Park Disabled Ski Team.

Michael Frogley – Head coach of the men’s and women’s wheelchair basketball teams at the University of Illinois since 1998. Coached the Illinois men to three national collegiate titles in 1998, 2000 and 2001. Coached the Illinois women to national titles in 2002 and 2006. Earned numerous championships and medals nationally and internationally as both a player and coach, including bronze at the 1990 World Cup, gold in 1991 at the Stoke Mandeville Wheelchair Games, gold with the Canadian women at the 1996 Paralympics and gold with the Canadian men at the 2000 Paralympics in Sydney and in Athens 2004.

Dave Grevemberg – International Paralympic Committee Sports Director and former Director of Disabled Sports USA’s competition program.

Dr. Robert Harney – Nationally recognized in the field of disabled sports, Dr. Harney was instrumental in developing disability classifications for the Paralympic games.

Brad Hedrick – Wheelchair basketball coach. Director of the Division of Rehabilitation Education Services at the University of Illinois. Coached 13 men’s and women’s wheelchair basketball teams to national titles. Author of books on wheelchair basketball and wheelchair track and field.

Charlie Heubner – First Chief of the U.S. Paralympics and previous Executive Director for the United States Blind Athletes.

Bryan Hoddle – Head coach of the U.S. Paralympic Track and Field Team in Athens 2004. Now serves as a consultant, motivator, teacher, and coach.

Jim MacLaren – As an amputee, he was an accomplished triathlete, but an accident during a competition injured his vertebrae, and ended his Ironman career. Jim became a motivational speaker and established the Choose Living Foundation. He received the Arthur Ashe Courage Award at the 2005 ESPY Awards.

Dennis Oehler and Todd Schaffhauser – Track and Field teammates at the 1988 Seoul Paralympics, they created walking and running clinics for amputees, their families, and rehabilitation professionals worldwide with the goal of having amputees learn how to be more physically active, gain confidence, and improve their mobility. Oehler: In 1988, won gold in 100m (A4A9), with a record time of 11.73 seconds, gold in the 200m and 400m. In 1992 Barcelona, won silver in the100m and gold in the long jump, setting a world record. 1996 Paralympian. Schaffhauser: Three-time Paralympian. Won gold in 1988 Seoul in 100m (A2A9). In 1992, won bronze in 200m. In the 1995 World Games in Germany, broke his own world record by running 100 meters in 14.55 seconds.

Meeche White – Former Chief Executive Officer and co-founder of the National Ability Center in 1985. Active in numerous national and community organizations including the U.S. Bobsled and Skeleton Federation and DS/USA. Taught adapted skiing for 20 years and continues to be active in ski racing for the disabled. ADA Manager for the 2002 Winter Olympic and Paralympic Games for the Salt Lake Organizing Committee.


Alpine and Nordic Skiing

The activity that started it all began on a ski slope. From the beginning when skiers experimented with wiring skis directly to their prosthesis, techniques and equipment and opportunities have exploded for those interested in snow sports. Some of the giants of Alpine and Nordic skiing include:

Candace Cable – Nine-time Paralympian, a former Alpine skier who switched to Nordic events and is the first U.S. Ski Team female sit-skier. Also, accomplished distance wheelchair racer and six-time Boston Marathon winner.

Steve Cook – Four-time Paralympian won gold in 5km freestyle, gold in 10km classic and bronze in 20km classic in 2006 Torino Paralympics.