Guest Author: Graham Walker
Have you heard the one about the Canadian, British, Australian and American soldiers in Whistler? No, its not a joke; it’s the Soldier On Allied Winter Sports Camp. Soldier On, in collaboration with Whistler Adaptive Sports Program (WASP) presents an opportunity for physically and mentally injured and ill servicemen and women from Canada, Australia, Britain, and the USA to participate in adaptive and non-adaptive winter sports in arguably the best winter sports destination in North America. As an injured member of the British military, I was very fortunate to be attending the ten-day camp in February 2016.
Having arrived in Whistler late the previous evening, breakfast would be my first chance to meet the rest of the group. My anxiety levels were through the roof; I had spent the best part of a year in hermit mode avoiding social interaction at all costs. As I entered the room my fears vanished, I was gripped by the excitement and positivity on display. The broad smiles, laughter and hand pumping as the different nations got to know each other quickly put me at ease.
It felt great to be part of a team again – the unique passion and humour I have experienced during my time in the military transcends borders. Here I was sitting in a room with forty strangers from different nations across the globe and I already felt at home. This deep sense of belonging would endure throughout my time in Whistler, so much so that I am already planning my next visit.
We set off the following morning for our first taste of alpine skiing and snowboarding. Chelsey Walker the Executive Director of WASP and her team of instructors were waiting to greet us. Their enthusiasm and passion for both Whistler and adaptive sports was evident from the first moment to the last. It certainly helped to inspire us to push ourselves further; particularly when suffering from the previous evening’s après-ski excesses. We were split into groups based on skill level and introduced to our instructors, many of which I later learned were unpaid volunteers. As I was a complete novice I joined the motley group of beginners, or ‘The Never Evers’ as we were often called. The instructors did a great job, teaching the basics on the training slopes, leading the accomplished skiers further up the mountain and demonstrating ballerina-like poise and elegance on the adaptive sit-skis. Without their expert tuition I would have spent a lot more time on my backside than my carefully edited GoPro footage suggests!
The next few days presented us with the opportunity to try activities that few if any of us had tried before. Chelsey and WASP introduced us to adaptive Nordic Cross Country Skiing at Whistler Olympic Park. Vivid memories of watching the Biathlon at the 2010 Winter Olympics on television were brought to life in all their surreal glory as I tried (and failed) to limit my falls to a respectable minimum. For those preferring a less challenging alternative, snowshoe walking tours were also available.
A particular highlight was the visit to Meadow Park Sports Centre. Sledge hockey is the Paralympic version of Ice Hockey, the physicality and competitive nature of the sport bewitched me. Following a quick session learning the basics we were split into teams. Any misplaced Illusions of a friendly, light-hearted game were instantly shattered by a rather enthusiastic Australian veteran who would have been better described as the ‘Battering Ram’. From that moment on it was all out war, no quarter was given. I was so caught up in the moment that I practically had to be dragged off the ice at the end.
The excitement continued throughout the remainder of our now dwindling time left in Whistler. A visit to Superfly Ziplines got our adrenaline pumping as we soared over some truly stunning terrain. There was also a rewarding dogsledding experience with Blackcomb Dogsledding, followed by a visit to the Whistler Sliding Centre (cue frequent references to the kissing of ‘lucky eggs’), some very competitive skeleton runs and an unexpectedly quick 125 kph bobsled ride down the fastest track in the world.
It’s hard to choose a specific highlight from the trip as every day was special. However, my time spent with WASP learning to snowboard was unforgettable. In ten short days’ friendships were forged and bonds cemented that I believe will stand the test of time. Each of us benefited from belonging to a team again, my experiences with Soldier On and the Whistler Adaptive Sports Program will stay with me for the rest of my life.
I have spent my life travelling, both with work and for pleasure, however, I have never felt as at home as I did in Whistler. I know that I speak for every member of the group when I extend my utmost gratitude to Jay, Joe and the team from Soldier On and to Chelsey and her band of merry instructors at WASP. I reluctantly boarded my flight home overflowing with optimism and renewed self-belief. Whistler, I will see you very soon…
The Whistler Adaptive Sports Program operates year-round supporting differently-abled athletes from beginners to professional athletes across a HUGE range of sports – check out their website for more information. You can learn more about Whistler’s activities and accessibility programs at Whistler.com.