An Interview with Don Becker
Eleven years ago, Adaptive Nordic Skiing was introduced to Madison, WI at the inaugural Capitol Square Sprints (currently Madison Winter Festival) by U.S. Paralympic Team with the support of Don Becker. Since that time, CXC has produced and donated over 300 sit-skis all around U.S., introduced over 1,000 individuals to recreational Adaptive Nordic Skiing and sent 4 athletes to the 2014 Paralympic Games in Sochi, Russia.
Since its introduction, sit-skiing has become more than just an opportunity for adaptive athletes to try the sport of skiing. For most, it has brought life back into people who thought skiing, or athletics in general, would not be a possibility for them.
We caught up with Don Becker, Madison native and one of the fathers of sit-skiing, whose mission has been to create an affordable sit-ski to allow anyone an opportunity to try sit-skiing and partake in adaptive athletics.
“We took trips up north to the Upper Peninsula, where we used really old skis and skied around the various trails. Once I started skiing with the Hoofers club, eventually every weekend turned into a skiing weekend.”
Once Don got involved in skiing, he was hooked. Don continued recreational skiing and also became interested in ski racing as well.
“I’ve never been a competitive skier but I’m a competitive person. I started skiing the Birkie with people from work in the late 70’s and thoroughly enjoyed participating in the race. Once I explored cross country skiing in the Midwest, I also became interested in venturing to the Scandinavian countries such as, Norway, Sweden and Finland to race and tour. I also took a ski trip to Canada, to explore their skiing opportunities as well.”
Looking to expand the sport of cross country skiing and bring a fun event to Madison, Don became a sponsor of the first Capitol Square Sprints, known now as Madison Winter Festival in 2005. This was when Don’s inspiration for sit-skiing was first sparked.
“I offered Yuriy a sponsorship for the event and he said what he needed the most help with was, inviting U.S. Paralympian Team to Madison, WI for the Capitol Square Sprints. We thought it would be a great opportunity for them to get on snow in Madison and demonstrate sit-skiing to the community and participants.”
The invitation was successfully received by the athletes and coaches who attended the event in 2005. After the event, Don began brainstorming ways CXC could buy a sit-ski for locals and participants to demo at the Capitol Square Sprints the following year.
“Yuriy began researching prices of sit-skis and realized it would cost us $2,000 to buy one. The outrageous price forced me to think outside the box to figure out another way to get a sit-ski.”
With the University of Wisconsin-Madison right in their backdoor, Don and CXC decided to use the University Recreational Sports Program and Engineering program as resources to create a sit-ski of their own.
“Not only did UW-Madison get on board, we also gained support from the U.S. Paralympics, UW-Madison graduate students and local Madison adaptive athlete Jane Schmieding. With support from multiple platforms, over the course of a couple years due to a lot of trial and error, one sit-ski was designed and built by the engineering students.”
After the first sit-ski was built, five additional sit-skis were built and taken to the Birkie by UW-Madison Adaptive Sports athletes, where the first sit-ski event took place.
“The Birkie was very supportive which helped the presence of sit-skiing became more established in the cross country skiing community and in the Midwest.”
After having success with the creation of the first sit-ski, Don and CXC began planning how the sit-ski could become even more efficient. This time, they turned to Duncan Bathe mechanical engineer, long time skier, and now CXC’s Sports Technologist and Veterans Program Coordinator along with Jeff Pagales, 1992 Winter Paralympic Games gold medalist.
“With Duncan and Jeff’s background and advice, the third generation sit-ski became more maneuverable, lighter and simpler, which is better for those individuals who want to compete. Some athletes still prefer the first generation because anyone can use it due to it’s rock solid and heavy frame.”
Once sit-skiing became more prevalent in the first few years after its creation, Don and CXC started seeing the impact it had on adaptive athletes.
Don’s most inspiring story was from Willy Stuart, a paralympian who shared a story of a woman who lost her legs and could no longer downhill ski.
“When she tried a sit-ski for the first time she said it gave her life back.”
Scott Bachmeier an avid skier, is another individual with an inspiring story that stands out in Don’s mind.
“Scott developed physical problems and thought he was done skiing because he could not stand up. We put him in a sit-ski and now he skis the Adaptive Birkie, and looks forward to skiing Kortelopet with his daughter in the future.”
Don’s hope for the future of sit skis is to be able to build 10,000 of them and distribute the sit-skis across the country in the adaptive world.
“Everyone who wants to try sit-skiing should have the opportunity to get out there during the winter. The best athletes should have the chance if they want. More competitive skiers, means more gold medals.”
His vision for sit-skis also goes hand in hand with the vision of the CXC Adaptive Program. There are two levels to the vision, one: to provide entry level experience to kids and adults, whether it be providing competitive opportunities to those who want to be competitive. Two: Give those competitive athletes the opportunity to train with professional coaches and able bodied athletes.
“Our daughter, who is visually impaired, began training at CXC about a year ago. With the vast experience and knowledge of the staff there, she has grown by leaps and bounds not only as a skier but as a person. CXC has supplied Mia with tools to conquer challenges on the trail and in the world of a young adult with a visual impairment”.