A smile for those who need it most
Steamboat Springs — Ski instructor Nancy Wilson loves her job.
You can see it in her broad smile, hear it in the words she uses to describe her students and feel it in her enthusiastic approach to the way she lives her life.
“I haven’t counted the number of days I’ve skied this year,” Wilson said. “But I can tell you that I’ve only missed five or six.”
The truth is that Wilson loves to ski so much she usually sneaks onto the slopes of the mountain even when she is not working.
She may be trying to make up for lost time.
After growing up in Denver, Wilson took a strange route to the mountains of northern Colorado. After high school she moved to Fort Worth, Texas, where she was married and started her family. But after several years, Wilson discovered that Texas and her marriage were not in her future.
So she left Texas to pursue her childhood dream of becoming a ski instructor.
“I know it’s crazy, but even when I was a kid I dreamed of teaching skiing,” Wilson said. “So I truly came to Steamboat with the idea of becoming a ski instructor.”
Looking back on it, Wilson says the move back to Colorado was a little presumptuous.
“I wasn’t that good of a skier,” she said. “They basically had to teach me the right way to ski.”
That was six years ago.
Today Wilson still has a slight southern draw, but she can ski with the best — and normally does.
“Every day it’s something different,” Wilson said of teaching. “The other day I had a group of nine little boys who were all sevens (very good skiers). I got to spend the whole day ripping through the trees, and skiing the chutes. It was really a lot of fun.”
Wilson is a top instructor and a veteran member of the Steamboat Ski and Snowboard School staff.
She can teach every level of skiing, but takes particular pride in working with ski area’s Adaptive Program.
“Nancy is a very special person and a wonderful instructor,” said Joanna Hall, ski school manager. “It takes a very special person to work in our Adaptive Program. You have to have a great deal of skill and patience. Only a handful of people have the ability to teach in this program.”
For the last 20 years the Steamboat Ski Area has offered the Adaptive Program as a branch of its main ski school. The idea is that instructors will adapt their teaching technique to assist those with disabilities.
Many of the instructors in the Adaptive Program help their students by teaching them to ski with adaptive equipment like the monoski, biski or outrigger. Wilson admires those instructors because it is often a very physically demanding job.
Her teaching strength is helping those with conditions such as autism, Down’s syndrome and attention deficit disorder.
Wilson said she began teaching such students early in her career. Because of the patience she showed helping children in the Kids Vacation Club she was given an opportunity to work with an autistic child.
“I’m sure it had something to do with my teaching technique and the fact I was a little older than some of the other instructors,” Wilson said.
It must have been a good fit, because these days Wilson, like most of the adaptive instructors at the ski area, splits her time between regular and adaptive lessons. She says about a third of her time is spent instructing children and adults with special needs.
“It’s not a big deal,” Wilson said of teaching skiing to special needs students. “They may need a little more attention and time, but it’s a joy to me to see them learn a skill.”
One of the biggest rewards is being able to bring families, especially those who have members with special needs, together on the slopes.
“Skiing is something that the whole family can enjoy and if I can teach them to do it together, that’s even better,” Wilson said.
As a teacher, nothing brings a smile to Wilson’s face quicker than hearing how a family has enjoyed their skiing vacation or that one of her special needs students has found success on the ski slopes or in life.
That’s why her home is full of notes, cards and letters from past students and their families.
“I wish you could see Jeremy Foster,” Wilson said of a young man with Down’s syndrome who was one of her first students. “When he started in our program he couldn’t ski, but now he can ski the race course, or a black run and he knows everyone’s name in ski school.”
While Wilson is happy to share her success stories, she remains humble about her accomplishments.
She feels there are instructors who deserve attention more than she does and she is just happy to be part of a program that plays such an important role at the ski area.
She knows that some special needs students can be a challenge, but her biggest teaching challenge was with a regular student.
“When I start teaching I normally try to find out what the child is into athletically. Then I relate that sport to skiing,” Wilson said. “But once I had a little boy who didn’t play any sports. All he did was work on his computer.”
Wilson said the boy was on vacation in Colorado with his family. While mom, dad and his siblings wanted to learn to ski, this little boy didn’t.
“We finally found something on the computer that we could relate to skiing” Wilson said. “Eventually the little boy learned to ski and had a good time with his family.”
Wilson said the little boy was a challenge, but getting him to enjoy the outdoors with his family was a moment she will never forget.
The outdoors have always been important to Wilson and she says that is one of the reasons she loves Colorado so much.
But when the ski area closes, and the lingering snow has given way to green grass on the slopes of Mount Werner, Wilson doesn’t stop enjoying the outdoors.
You might find Wilson knee deep in the waters of the Yampa River or along one of the many backcountry trails during the off-season.
She is also at home in the kitchen, taking pride in her braised lamb shanks.
While skiing fills up her winters, she is just as passionate about gardening in the summer.
For the past five seasons she has held down a seasonal job with Windemere Landscape and Garden Center that allows her to pay the bills while practicing her second love.
Wilson said many of her friends have followed her to Steamboat, but she doesn’t have any family in the area. Her two grown children — Kristilea and J.W. — both live in Texas. She has a 2-year-old grandchild.
Wilson’s never-fading smile seems to be captivating.
It’s the type of smile that makes those around her wonder why she always seems to be so happy.
She will tell you the answer is that she simply loves her job.
“All of my students are so special and have so many gifts,” Wilson said. “But at the end of the lesson (I realize that) they have given me 10 times more than what I could ever give back.”
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