Nordic Ski Team Serves Those Who Served

If you visited the Weston Ski Track on any given Monday afternoon this February, you would have been greeted by the inspiring sight of disabled veterans learning to ski.

Their teachers aren’t just any ordinary ski instructors, though. Instead, they are members of the Harvard Nordic ski team who volunteer as part of the New England Nordic Ski Association’s Adaptive Ski program.

For six straight Mondays this winter, members of the team spent four hours each afternoon teaching veterans the ins and outs of Nordic skiing. Three years ago, the Department of Veterans Affairs gave a grant to NENSA to start an adaptive ski program. Harvard Nordic ski coach Chris City heard about the developing program and immediately decided he wanted to get his team involved. This past winter marked the third straight year the team has volunteered with the program.

“Every coach and athlete on our team loves skiing,” City said. “This program was an opportunity to bring this sport we love to a group of people who haven’t really had a lot of access to it. It is a really cool thing that we can bring skiing to a group of people who have never had a chance to before.”

The program includes veterans and non-veterans with a wide range of disabilities, from leg amputees that use what is called a sit-ski to those suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. Skiing ability between participants also varies. Some veterans come to the program with prior experience, while others have never skied a day in their lives.


Because snow is a limiting factor for both collegiate skiing and the adaptive ski program, the team has to volunteer its time in the middle of its race season. Monday has always served as the only day off from a hard in-season training program for the Nordic ski team because it typically comes after a weekend of racing. The Nordic team now includes spending its afternoon with the adaptive ski program as part of its routine on its off day.

“I think that being a part of the program takes [our team] a little bit out of themselves,” City said. “Our sport rewards individual thinking, so I think having the program during the season helps our athletes take a step back and remember first learning the sport and how much fun skiing can be.”

While the adaptive program has many obvious benefits for veterans and team members alike, an important part of the program comes from the relationships developed throughout the program.

Captain Alena Tofte worked with a veteran with mobility disabilities across multiple sessions this year. While not every team member works with the same veteran week to week, the senior said she enjoyed the experience of watching him progress over the duration of the program.

Sophomore Nordic skier Emily Rogers, who functions as the team’s coordinator for the program, places equal importance on the teaching side and social side of the program. As the coordinator, the sophomore has had the chance to work with many different veterans.

However, when asked about her most memorable moment, the sophomore immediately recounted a time when she first taught a disabled veteran and former marathon runner how to ski. By the end of the first day, the man—who had never been on skis before in his life—was able to climb Mount Westin, the largest hill on the course. It was not the accomplishment that amazed Rogers, but the veteran’s ability to focus on making it to the top even though other skiers were flying by.

“I just thought it was really cool that he wanted to push himself so much and that he wouldn’t let himself stop,” Rogers said. “I really like seeing just how quickly people improve and hearing the stories about their lives.”

For many members of the Nordic ski team, the adaptive program also provides a great way to spread the word about the sport that they love. Only 42 schools have NCAA-sanctioned ski programs, but the adaptive ski program allows the Crimson to introduce the sport to a new audience.

Though on the surface it may seem that only skiing is being taught on these winter afternoons, Rogers, Tofte, and City all mention just how much the team has grown from its experiences and interactions with the veterans over the six-week program.

“I think it has really benefitted us by giving us a better perspective on a sport that we all love and by giving us meaningful relationships,” Tofte said. “Our relationships with the veterans were really one of the best parts of our experience and one of the best parts of the program overall.”