Like many long-anticipated sporting events for which athletes train rigorously, the annual Sunrise Ascent kicks off with a spaghetti supper the night before, running on equal parts carbs and excitement. And if participants are giddy at dinner, come 4 a.m. their enthusiasm is downright palpable.
Among the 15 athletes at this year’s predawn starting line is 58-year-old Suzie “Soo-Soo” Coughlan, a former Montessori teacher from Maynard, Mass. She’s surrounded by a “blue sea of love,” as she calls her support team of 19, all dressed in turquoise T-shirts and bandanas, with a massive homespun flag at the ready. Soo-Soo has the spirit, the crew, and the experience. Only one thing distinguishes her from your typical athlete. She is battling Inclusion Body Myositis, an extremely rare degenerative disease with no cure.
Another Ascenter, 19-year-old Sasha Segal, lives with a genetic condition, commonly called Sanfilippo Syndrome, that has claimed many of her cognitive and physical capabilities. And nearby, volunteers gather around Martin Wallem, a lifelong outdoorsman diagnosed with ALS 17 years ago, at age 31. Today he breathes through a ventilator and communicates with his eyes. Swaddled from head to toe, Wallem, who inspired the event, takes it all in.
Soo-Soo, Sasha, and Martin are proven adaptive athletes. For them and for their families, the Sunrise Ascent is the year’s crescendo. Full of coffee, bagels, and gumption, they start their climb.
Since 2009, Adaptive Sports Partners of the North Country (ASPNC), based in Franconia, N.H., has helped these three athletes and hundreds of others participate in outdoor activities. The Sunrise Ascent is the group’s annual summit, and while the event is planned as a 7.6-mile trek up the Mount Washington Auto Road, in years such as this one, rain or fog occasionally requires a detour to plan B: an 8-mile hike from Flume Gorge to the base of Cannon Mountain.
Weather is a hazard familiar to all hikers in the White Mountains but not one that slows down this group. As she waits her turn at the starting line on August 6, Sasha’s eyes dart around, her face breaks into easy smiles, and her hands wave freely—all indicating her awareness that today holds something special.
Founded in 2009, ASPNC is one of some 30-plus organizations in New England—including New Hampshire’s Northeast Passage, New York’s Adaptive Sports Foundation, and Rhode Island’s Sail to Prevail—that engage and assist adaptive athletes, loosely defined as those who have mobility impairments. In practice, athletes may range from someone with a prosthetic limb to someone who requires a trail rider: a contraption that’s a bit like a wheelbarrow, with one wheel or ski in front and two handles in back. The trail rider, in turn, is powered by a team of volunteers, called mules, who work in shifts to guide an athlete over terrain. One volunteer wears a harness and pulls from the front; two are stationed on either side for safety; and one to two people manage the rear bar.
It’s this pairing of human power and specialty gear that gets many outdoor lovers up the mountain. Take Martin Wallem, whose condition kindled ASPNC’s formation. When a ventilator became necessary for Martin’s care, his wife, Cara, had trouble finding an outlet that would support him outdoors. Along with fellow professionals, Sandy Olney, ASPNC’s founding executive director and a certified Level II adaptive ski instructor, responded. “We wanted to be community-based, year-round, and open to people of any ability,” Olney says. “If we could help it, we didn’t want to exclude anyone.”
To avoid being perceived as solely a ski program, ASPNC launched before the snow began to fly, taking Wallem on an autumn hike to New Hampshire’s Bald Peak, in the Kinsmans. Wallem, whose movements are restricted to grinding his teeth and blinking his eyes, was able to hike, snowshoe, and downhill ski with volunteers.
“With the help of ASPNC, Martin continues to adaptive hike and ski,” Cara says. “He has been able to share his love of the outdoors with our son by skiing and hiking alongside him. The overwhelming feeling of accomplishment when we reach a summit is unexplainable.”
More than 120 ASPNC volunteers, staffers, and Plymouth State University doctoral students in physical therapy assist 200 adaptive athletes each year in an array of programs serving people of all abilities. There’s a power-wheelchair soccer team, a sled-hockey team, and a statewide Special Olympics team. There’s kayaking, swimming, fishing, mountain biking, rock climbing, tennis, basketball, alpine skiing, Nordic skiing, snowboarding, and snowshoeing—the latter often leaving from AMC’s Highland Center at Crawford Notch. Participation fees for athletes average around $25 per session for a six- to eight-week course, with a sliding scale available.
“AMC’s mission and commitment to ensuring outdoor access for all means supporting organizations such as Adaptive Sports Partners,” says Chris Thayer, AMC’s director of North Country programs and outreach.
Sasha Segal also has benefited from ASPNC. Ten years ago, her parents, Mike and Joanne Huff, moved from Los Angeles back to Joanne’s native New Hampshire. It was there they discovered Sasha’s love of the outdoors, specifically trees.
“She would gaze at them and beam,” Joanne recalls of her daughter, who is nonverbal. “That made me realize I should try to find a way to get her outdoors more regularly, but I didn’t know how.”
For years, Sasha’s behavior was “pretty wild,” Joanne says. Hyperactivity is common as Sanfilippo Syndrome progresses, and when it grew difficult to harness Sasha’s energy, her safety, especially in recreational settings, became an issue. Then, three years ago, Joanne heard about ASPNC. She called Olney to learn more and soon found herself in a comprehensive dialogue, reporting not only on Sasha’s developmental, cognitive, and postural states but also on what she and Mike hoped Sasha would get out of ASPNC.
What began as a way of exposing Sasha to nature expanded to include such goals as boosting her confidence, social engagement, connection to a community, and exposure to new activities. “There were so many [possibilities] I never thought about,” Joanne says. “It was a whole new world once I had that revelation.”
Sasha’s needs are some of the most profound among ASPNC athletes. Because she doesn’t have control over her limbs, her trail rider must prevent her from extending her arms; her legs are gently strapped; and a U-shaped rest keeps her feet from dropping to the ground. “Some people need a little bit more; others need less,” Joanne says.
Since joining ASPNC, Sasha has gone downhill skiing, biked in a triathlon, and hiked throughout Franconia Notch State Park. Her love of speed is obvious. “At the triathlon, it was like she had been shot out of a cannon,” Joanne jokes. “Her hair was flying, and she was so gleeful. I’ll never forget the image of this fearless child who was doing something independent of me.”
Bill Cobb, a three-year volunteer with ASPNC and a member of Sasha’s mule team for this year’s Sunrise Ascent, has learned to read her cues as well. “Every now and then she lets out a big whoop,” Cobb says, letting her handlers know when she is enjoying herself and when she wants to go faster. “That’s really motivating.”
Time is precious for Sasha’s family, as doctors have predicted a shorter than average life span. “We try to focus on the now, without getting too consumed by the future,” Joanne says. “We are making memories today, doing whatever we can to enjoy it. These are incredible times. You just try to slow them down and savor them.”
Soo-Soo Coughlan relishes the freedom ASPNC has given her. Over the last three years, the one-time all-around athlete and elite skier has become acutely aware how many activities her body can no longer handle on its own. “When I was first introduced to adaptive skiing, I found the idea of going down the slope in a toboggan horrifying,” she says.
“And then, two years later, when I had to stop working, I thought I’d try it.” Soo-Soo’s first experience was not ideal, but mishaps aside, she kept going. “I got that feeling of cold air on my cheeks,” she says. “There I was on Mount Cannon, channeling memories of skiing with my White Mountain School friends and my father. That was the moment I thought, This disease is not going to kill me.”
Some activities set her back physically in short term, but Soo-Soo says the toll on her body pales in comparison to the lift she receives. “It’s exhausting, but my spirit is strong and happy, and I feel so supported.”
At the closing ceremony of this year’s Sunrise Ascent, when all of the awards have been distributed and some tears shed, Soo-Soo makes her way over to Martin, to thank him for helping initiate this deeply meaningful event so many years ago. Having heard he’s competitive about the fundraising component, she feels the need to apologize for stealing the wind from his sails: Her team raised $22,000, an unprecedented accomplishment. With Cara aiding the conversation, the two athletes agree everyone’s a winner.
Perhaps the words painted on Team Soo-Soo’s flag best express the sentiment at the hearts of all present. Staked at the hike’s end, it waves its message: Powered by Optimism.
ASPNC runs activities for athletes and volunteers every month of the year. Upcoming outings include:
Looking to volunteer with ASPNC? Find information for both adults and youth. Athletes or family members interested in ASPNC’s services can read more. Not based in New Hampshire? For dozens of other adaptive athletics programs in the Northeast, visit Adaptive Sports New England.