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It’s ‘a life-changer’

Skiers partner with camp for paraplegic athletes

By Abigail Chalmers

The Bayside Water Ski Show Team partnered with the National Wheelchair Sports Camp to provide adaptive athletes with the opportunity of a lifetime on Tuesday. 

Based in Stewartville at the Ironwood Springs Christian Ranch, the National Wheelchair Sports Camp is the largest sports camp for wheelchair athletes in the nation.

For the past 35 years, it has hosted a camp for paraplegic athletes of all ages that features a variety of sports and activities from badminton to ziplining.

About 100 campers and caregivers traveled to Albert Lea to utilize the Edgewater Bay area of Fountain Lake for the skiing activity.

Assisted by volunteers, the athletes had a chance to ski, kayak or take a ride on a pontoon. The boats were operated by the Bayside Ski Team, and they also helped the campers into the skis and rode alongside them on skis of their own.

Brad Belcher was one of the Bayside skiers lending a helping hand wherever necessary. Belcher had played an important role in bringing the camp to Albert Lea. He had worked with them a few years earlier and offered up the bay for usage upon hearing that the camp was looking for a site for its skiing activity. He also trained the Bayside volunteers prior to Tuesday to ensure that they would be able to successfully help the athletes. Belcher loves seeing the smiles on the campers and their families’ faces.

“Frankly, it’s probably the best part of skiing,” he said.

Camper Chloe Karkpatrick was the first to give skiing a try. With help from the Bayside volunteers, she got into her ski-seat, slid off the dock into the water and took a lap around the lake behind the boat.

“The water was cold,” she said. “Other than that, it was a lot of fun.”

The National Wheelchair Sports Camp was begun by Bob Bardwell in 1986. Bardwell was inspired to create a camp for those with disabilities after suffering an injury that rendered him paralyzed. Bardwell gave a short speech at the beginning of the event before sitting back to watch the campers enjoy themselves. He sees the camp as an opportunity to not only grow as an athlete but as a person.

“It can be a life changer for you,” he said. “You keep your ears open and your heart open this week, you go home a changed person. And they are.”

Aside from partaking in the water activities, the campers and volunteers were able to eat a lunch of burgers and brats, provided by the RDO Equipment Co., and socialize with one another, which Bardwell noted as one of the best things about the experience.

“One of the greatest benefits of this camp is just the fellowship,” Bardwell said. 

After skiing, the athletes returned to Stewartville for the remainder of the camp.