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Nineteen-year-old Katie Gerk heads down the slopes at Winter Park, using a sit ski and outriggers, as well as the guidance of a National Sports Center for the Disabled ski instructor. The adaptive setup has allowed Gerk to spend the last four winters skiing at Winter Park through a program at Children’s Hospital Colorado.

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Katie Gerk was recognized at an awards ceremony at Children’s Hospital Colorado for her four years of skiing with ARCH. —Johnson Publications photo

Adaptive equipment enables skiing for local tech-lover

    A number of intrepid people have designed adaptive equipment to make skiing a possibility for disabled individuals. In the same way, Katie Gerk is looking to problem-solve and create her own mobile technology to help others.
    Initially Gerk, an HHS senior, thought skiing would be a one-time experience. Honestly, she said, she thought skiers were crazy. Little did she know she was going to become one of those crazy skiers herself. Four years later, she’s finished her final season of skiing multiple Saturdays each winter through a program called Adaptive Recreation for Childhood Health.
    Children’s Hospital Colorado started ARCH in 1968 as a way for amputees to get involved with skiing. Since then, the program has expanded to provide recreational resources for individuals with a wide range of medical conditions, including cancer, spina bifida, head and spinal cord injuries, and cerebral palsy, the disorder Gerk has.
    Gerk explained that she has spastic diplegic cerebral palsy, and as a result, her legs are affected, causing her to crouch and move side-to-side when she walks. Her hands are minimally affected as well. She added that she suffered some brain damage due to a blood clot she had when she was a baby.
    In her 19 years, Gerk has faced a number of medical setbacks. She was born prematurely at 28 weeks, weighing only 1 pound, 14 ounces, due to complications from twin to twin transfusion syndrome. She’s had heart surgery and kidney-bladder surgery and several orthopedic surgeries. All of her orthopedic surgeries have been performed by Dr. Frank Chang at CHC, and her most recent was a double knee surgery last year.
    If Gerk didn’t already like Chang as a doctor, his involvement with ARCH would have won her over. She laughs just talking about him and his funny ties. For over 25 years, Chang has volunteered as the medical liaison for ARCH, and he was the one who suggested Gerk try the ski program. In addition to his medical expertise, he offers his videographer skills, filming the ARCH kids on the slopes.
    Fortunately, Gerk never had any serious injuries during her time skiing, but she was glad to have Chang around nonetheless because he always had a couple bags of candy on hand and his sense of humor was guaranteed to have skiers cracking up.
    Gerk was still recovering from knee surgery during this last ski season. Of course, that didn’t stop her. It seems she’s never been one to let things stop her.
    In fact, when she first tried skiing, she was outfitted with standing skis, and those didn’t work for her. Her brain wanted to use the poles as support, she said, but that’s just not how they worked. Gerk wasn’t deterred; she tried a different type of adaptive skiing device called a sit ski. As it turned out, the sit ski suited Gerk well, and she went on to use the device many times over the last few years. To maneuver the sit ski, Gerk used outriggers, which are basically crutches with skis on the end of them, she said.
    Likewise, Gerk has had some frustrations with the lack of accessible mobile apps, but her solution to that problem isn’t to complain or give up. Instead, she’s resolved to attend school to learn to develop apps herself so she can create apps that help the disabled community.
    Right now, she said, a visit to the app store reveals a depressingly limited offering in the special needs section, and most of the ones that are there look like they’re targeted at preschool-aged kids, not teens and young adults like herself.
    Raised on a farm by her parents, Brad and Chris Gerk, she pointed out that there aren’t many useful agricultural apps available, either. In typical Katie fashion, she intends to address that problem herself, as well.
    It’s no wonder Gerk was such a good fit for ARCH. The program strives to focus on an individual’s abilities, rather than disabilities, and Gerk seems like a girl who gets right into doing what she can instead of worrying about what she can’t do. She will be graduating from Holyoke High School this May and plans to attend Northwest Kansas Technical College in Goodland, Kansas, to study app development.
    “I like to learn how everything works,” Gerk said, and as she prepares for a career in technology, it’s no surprise that one of her favorite parts about skiing was learning how things functioned. From the brain, to the adaptive equipment, to the body, she was constantly interested in the mechanisms that make skiing possible.
    Although she’s sad that she’s reached the end of her own time at ARCH, Gerk would recommend the program to others — as participants or as volunteers. Each individual is equipped with adaptive equipment to fit his or her specific needs. About a month before skiing begins, participants go to a ski-fitting day at CHC to be assessed and get gear customized for the season. Skiing takes place at the National Sports Center for the Disabled at Winter Park each year.
    In addition to snowboarding and skiing, ARCH has a variety of other recreational programs. Over the years it has included such things as biking, golfing, horseback riding, fishing, rafting, sailing, tennis and flying. Each year, about 100 kids participate in ARCH programs.
    She’s going to miss skiing, but Gerk’s not sure whether it’s something she will do in the future. In the meantime, she stays busy with her hobbies. She’s teaching herself to code and dabbles in archery. She also works out with her twin, Jaxie, to keep her core and her quads strong.
    Gerk’s four years of skiing with ARCH were recognized at an awards program last weekend at CHC. There participants and family members celebrated the season and each skier’s accomplishments. Gerk returned home with medals, a certificate and photos to commemorate her experience.

Watch a video of Gerk skiing here:

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