Local quadriplegic conquers Birkebeiner
St. Albert man one of first quadriplegics in event's history
Wednesday, Feb 16, 2011 06:00 am
A local man has become one of the first quadriplegic athletes to take part in the Canadian Birkebeiner.
Bradley Pfeifle of St. Albert was one of three members of the Edmonton Adaptive Cross-Country Skiing program to take part in the Canadian Birkebeiner Ski Festival last Saturday. According to event organizers, he was one of the first quadriplegics skiers in the event’s history.
It was a lot of fun, says Pfeifle. “I fell over and bumped my eye, but that was OK.”
As he was being pushed to the start on his sit-ski chair, he explains, his assistant accidentally let go of him while going down a hill. Since he had no use of his arms or legs, he had little control over what happened next.
“The snow dipped on one side and sort of tipped me over,” he says, leaving him with a small cut above his eye. “After we got on track, everything went pretty good.”
From wheels to skis
Pfeifle, 28, says he broke his neck about two years ago one winter night when he fell off the trestle bridge near Lions Park in St. Albert. A former hockey player, he used to get around town by bike, foot, or skateboard. Now, he uses a wheelchair controlled by head movements.
It’s hard to get around in the winter due to the snow, he says. Cabs help, but St. Albert doesn’t have many that are wheelchair-accessible. He spent most of last winter indoors as a result.
His friend, Kuen Tang of the Canadian Paraplegic Association in Edmonton, introduced him to sit-skiing this year.
Tang, a quad-rugby player who has partial use of her arms, says she came up with the idea of the program after going downhill skiing. “Downhill’s not good for quads as we don’t have any trunk muscles and can’t control the skis,” she explains — you have to be roped to two other skiers. “To give up total control like that … I might as well sit at home and play video games.”
Cross-country skiing lets her clients get outdoors while still having some control over their actions, she says. “We will definitely need people to push and pull once in a while, but it’s a start.”
Tang and co-organizer Laurie Beresnak teamed up with Mike Neary, manager of Cross Country Alberta, to start a six-week adaptive ski course in Edmonton this winter. The course is open to anyone who can’t stand up to ski due to an injury, and is looking for more students.
The course has run for three years in Calgary, Neary says, but this is the first time it’s reached Edmonton. It’s the same as a regular learn-to-ski course, except the skiers sit in chairs that lock onto the skis.
Skiers hockey-tape the poles to their hands and pull themselves along to move, Tang says. It’s an intense workout. “We’re pulling our whole weight plus the skis,” she says, often without use of their triceps. “I was sweating.”
Pfeifle says he gets pushed for most of his runs, although he can steer bobsled-style on the downhill parts. “It’s an adrenaline rush. It gives you a sense of control.”
About 1,800 people attended the Birkebeiner, according to organizers, which was held at the Cooking Lake-Blackfoot provincial recreation area east of Sherwood Park. Pfeifle and his course-mates took part in the 2.5 kilometre Ole’s Tour race.
It was a warm, sunny day, Tang says, and the trails were excellent. Everyone finished the race. “I think all of us wiped out at least once.”
Courses like this give people great workouts and a sense of normalcy in their lives, she says. “It’s the idea of independence. It’s the idea of, ‘Finally, we can get outdoors again.’”
It gives you spiritual help as well, Pfeifle says. It helps you get rid of stress and gives you a chance to meet others in the same position as you.
“It’s weird,” he says of the experience. “I can’t feel my legs, but I can feel by my waist, so it sort of feels like I’m standing.”
Pfeifle says he plans to do the Birkebeiner again — this time, with a helmet.
Call Tang at 780-424-6312 ext. 2235 for more on the program.