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For the past three weeks, the Harvard Nordic ski team has been trying to spread the joys of its chosen sport. The Crimson has been working with the New England Nordic Ski Association (NENSA) to teach Nordic skiing to war veterans from local VA hospitals.
“This is a sport that brings a lot of joy,” coach Chris City ’94 says. “There’s something energizing and reinvigorating about being able to go for a ski. I would hope what we do is bring that sense of being refreshed, reenergized.”
According to a NENSA press release written by Nathaniel Herz, the program is part of a larger initiative by the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs to “create recreational opportunities for disabled veterans, or fund existing ones.”
When NENSA decided to start its own program, it asked Eileen Carey, then the head of the Maine Winter Sports Center, to serve as director of the Adaptive Program. Carey accepted.
“It’s a new program for both the organization and myself,” Carey explains. “In my work that I’ve done at Maine Winter Sports Center, [I worked on] making it more accessible. The work I was doing in Maine was using skiing as a way to address public health issues. I saw this is as ... a good challenge, something that I was really excited about.”
Carey is working to create a New England-wide program, but she chose to start with the Boston area, targeting three local VA hospitals and looking for volunteers.
And that’s where the Harvard ski team came in.
“In building a program ... it’s obviously important [to have] a knowledgeable volunteer base,” she explains. “That includes everything from ski instruction to medical considerations. I kind of reached out to different people. The Harvard team was a natural fit as far as having a ski background. ...They seemed really interested in helping out.”
For City and the Crimson, the decision was a no-brainer.
“Veterans are a group to which we owe a great deal,” City says. “If we can help with either ... health or providing company, maybe in some small measure we’re helping to repay the debt we owe for their service.”
The team first participated on Jan. 31 and now sends volunteers every Monday to Weston Ski Track, the team’s home course, where it meets up with veterans of various levels of mobility.
“I was working with one of the athletes who was able to stand,” freshman Tanner Wiegand says. “Some of the athletes are not as mobile.”
But while the veterans may demonstrate different levels of mobility, they have in common a desire to learn and improve.
“They’re all really motivated to learn how to ski,” Wiegand says. “I was so surprised how even though it was obviously a huge struggle, they’re motivated; they were out there in the cold.”
According to Carey, the program has been a success so far.
“The Harvard ski team has been really helpful in providing that experience,” Carey said. “I think everyone’s had a really positive experience. We’ve had some people in the program that have been able to advance their rehabilitation on skis, which has been really exciting to see.”
But the veterans are not the only ones reaping the benefits.
Both City and Wiegand stress the ways in which the program has helped the Crimson’s skiers both technically and mentally.
“This is one of my first experiences [coaching],” Wiegand says. “You don’t realize what it is you’re doing until you try to teach someone. It’s a good opportunity to look at my own skiing.”
But more than that, the program has allowed Harvard’s Nordic skiers to remind themselves of the joys of their sport in the midst of the college season.
“Sports and being an athlete can be ... very self-centered,” City says. “We can get very focused on ourselves. I think it’s really important to take a look around every now and then. It sort of puts things in perspective.”
—Staff writer Christina C. McClintock can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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