Adaptive Ski Clinic Provides "A New Kind of Freedom"

Jul 15, 2016

14-year old Suzanne Shoemaker of Dexter skis with the help of a Water Hawks team member.
Credit Liv Martin for IPR

Eagle Lake in Evansdale is home to the nationally-ranked competitive water ski team known as the Water Hawks.  The lake is small, only 15 feet deep. It’s usually buzzing with skiers practicing for their next show, but one day each July it’s transformed into a playground for people with mobility limitations.  

Fourteen-year-old Suzanne Shoemaker has cerebral palsy and earlier this week, was here at the adaptive ski clinic near Waterloo for the second time.

“I fell down 13 times the first time I tried to get up, but I got up and got my own ski and I try to ski as often as I can now," she says.

Shoemaker, who’s from Dexter in central Iowa, is the first of eight skiers to enter the water. This year, with a Water Hawks team member beside her, it takes her not 13 but just three attempts. 

It takes an army of volunteers to facilitate the event, including boat drivers, family members, and recreational therapists.  Gary Gilles is a therapist at Waterloo’s Covenant Medical Center. He says the equipment needed is often cost prohibitive. Participants sit on a wide, single ski outfitted with a basket or cage that can be customized.

“The skis themselves usually cost a couple thousand dollars and then you know even if you have the skis, sometimes you have to have people that can drive the boat, people that can ski beside you to help,” Gilles explains. “It’s just not something financially that anybody can do or get enough manpower to help.”  

Gilles says although a day on the water works for some, those who are physically challenged by spinal cord injuries or amputations should also look for other opportunities.

“There’s different ways to adapt your recreation," he says. "If there’s something that you want to try or have done in the past that you maybe can’t do with quite the same facet, there’s always a way to adapt things so you’re able to get back out and do the things that you select to do or go out and try new things."

Suzanne Shoemaker has certainly taken that advice to heart.

“I horseback ride, I rock climb, I swim, I ski obviously. I’ve snow skied before," she says.  "I do a lot of things. Hand cycling…”

Shoemaker’s competitive nature is shared by 31-year-old Vince Liddle of Nashua. Liddle was injured in a snowboarding accident in 2007.

“I’ve actually played wheelchair basketball competitively, so this is kind of my off-season sport," he says. "July 23rd I’ll be going to compete down in Des Moines at the competition for slalom as well as this weekend we have a competition--a college competition--here at the Water Hawk’s Eagle Lake."

What’s amazing about Liddle’s resume is that prior to his injury, water skiing was not part of his repertoire.

“No, I never skied able-bodied at all. After I broke my back, the only thing I’ve done is three clinics," he smiles as he explains. "I did one in Phoenix about three years ago, then last year I did this clinic. Then I went down to the Quad Cities and did the clinic down in the Quad Cities that they have on Rock Island.”

Liddle and the others say the clinic that’s provided without charge gives them a chance to experience a new kind of freedom. Suzanne Shoemaker says her time outdoors is therapeutic.

“You don’t really think about anything that you’re doing," she says. "You just focus on how your body’s moving, and you get to have fun and just go do it, and do something a lot of people like to do!” 

“It’s just fun! It’s liberating," Liddle adds enthusiastically.  "You get to just get out and be on the water, enjoy the sun, enjoy the weather, be outdoors. You know, you’re not just cooped up sitting in your chair. It’s getting you out of the chair. But you know, when you get on the water, you’re in a totally different realm. You’re not gonna get hurt falling. The water’s soft. You swim, you’re cooled off, and you just have fun.”

Liddle is out of his chair and in the water on a regular basis. He has joined the Water Hawks team and performs a half-hour exhibition every Friday night through the summer.