Machine invented in Steamboat Springs helps disabled people get on the ski slopes
Steamboat Springs — Eric Berkey was nervous about returning to the ski slopes as a quadriplegic.
“I was so used to being an able-bodied skier all my life, I didn’t know what to expect or if I’d be able to do it,” Berkey, 43, said Thursday at his room in Casey’s Pond. “I had some trepidations.”
In 2011, Berkey tripped on a fuel line and fell off his family’s boat while it was on a trailer in San Diego.
Restricted to a motorized wheelchair following his accident, the former ski patroller, who used to chase snowstorms in the Rocky Mountains, didn’t ski for nearly four years after his fall.
Then he moved to Steamboat Springs and met Wes Dearborn and Steve Harrison.
The men had a brand new invention that would help Berkey return to the slopes.
It’s called the sit ski simulator, and it allows someone to learn the basics of sit skiing from the warmth and comfort of their home.
“In the machine, you get to experience the body mechanics of skiing,” Berkey said. “It was really helpful because as a quadriplegic, I wasn’t sure I’d be able to even balance myself with the outriggers.”
For six weeks last fall, Berkey used the simulator and a monoski from Steamboat Adaptive Recreational Sports to learn how to ski again.
At Casey’s Pond, he made turns.
He experienced what it would be like to crash and fall.
Then, in November, he hit the slopes at Steamboat Ski Area.
He’s now skiing every week.
Berkey said his prior training on the simulator removed a lot of the trial and error and frustration that could have occurred on the slopes.
“When we got to the snow, it felt a little bit more familiar,” Berkey said. “I think the simulator would be a great thing to have in every rehab center. Not only would it be a good source of exercise, psychologically it would get a patient excited. They’d see it, and they’d say ‘oh wow, there’s something I can do.'”
Dearborn and Harrison are now working to make their invention mainstream and help others get into adaptive sports.
“There’s all sorts of exercise equipment out there,” Dearborn said. “Why shouldn’t there be a device for monoskiing?”
Dreaming on napkins
The sit ski simulator started out as a blueprint on a napkin at a local bar.
Dearborn, an able-bodied adaptive ski coach, had just returned from the Hartford Ski Spectacular in Breckenridge in 2011 and was struck by how difficult it was to learn to monoski.
It was a very cold day on the slopes, and Dearborn was frustrated by crashes and his reliance on other people to pick him up.
He said he came up with the idea for the sit ski simulator on the drive home.
“Liking skiing in the first hour is important,” Dearborn said. “And one of the biggest things to overcome is fear.”
Dearborn called Steve Harrison, his water skiing buddy, to help create a device that would allow someone to learn to sit ski in the more forgiving environment of their bedroom or living room.
The thinking was the simulator could make it possible for more people with disabilities to ski, and succeed at it.
Dearborn’s knowledge of ski instruction and Harrison’s craftsmanship proved to be a productive combination.
Three years ago, the men met at Mahogany Ridge and started sketching out the possibilities on napkins.
Harrison told Dearborn to give him a wish list of the things he wanted the machine to do.
He then tested designs using AutoCAD and then handcrafted the parts in a garage.
The dreams then became reality, and their business venture turned into a company called Innovative Adaptive Technologies.
In a Steamboat garage, Harrison built the first two prototypes of the sit ski simulator in 2012.
After that, each prototype got stronger and more practical.
When retired U.S. Air Force Chief Master Sergeant Sonny Naranjo first saw the sit ski simulator in Breckenridge, he started playing with it.
He learned quickly that it had a lot of potential.
“I knew it was going to help a lot of folks,” he said.
Naranjo, a consultant at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center and an adaptive ski instructor, wanted one installed at Walter Reed.
Naranjo has worked with many disabled veterans who initially don’t believe they can do something like skiing following an injury.
“They look at me and go ‘You want me to ski in my condition?'” Naranjo said.
He saw the simulator as a tool that could help the patients discover they could ski before they made trips to places like Colorado.
“It is so rewarding when you have success with the trainer early on,” he said.
In July, Dearborn and Harrison delivered a new sit ski simulator prototype to Walter Reed.
Patients are able to use it in conjunction with the hospital’s Computer Assisted Rehabilitation Environment, or CAREN, system.
Dearborn describes the CAREN as a $1.2 million Wii gaming system.
In the garage in Steamboat where the simulator is being built, Dearborn pulls out his cell phone and plays a video of a Walter Reed patient using the simulator in front of a large screen displaying a virtual ski slope.
When the skier turns, the screen turns to match the movement.
Skiers can practice making turns through gates from the comfort of the hospital.
“It has worked out incredibly well,” Naranjo said.
The new model
On Friday afternoon, Dearborn pulled up to Harrison’s home and unloaded their latest, freshly-painted simulator.
“I think we have a really solid product now,” Dearborn said of the latest prototype that consists of 75 individual parts and 32 pieces of hardware. “I think this is the one.”
Dearborn took the machine through the paces, carving turns in the garage.
“I’m proud of what we’ve come up with,” Harrison said. “It’s been really fun getting here.”
After the men tested the new machine, they loaded it back up and headed for Winter Park.
There, they’ll have the machine on display at the 40th annual Wells Fargo Ski Cup that serves as a fundraiser for the National Sports Center for the Disabled.
Dearborn and Harrison hope the machine catches on and they can find an investor who could help take the project from single prototypes to mass production.
They also hope their company can expand and make a range of equipment for people with disabilities.
“We’re trying to help people live fuller lives,” Dearborn said
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