How one Vermont organization adapts sports — like cycling — to everyone's abilities
From road bikes, to recumbent, to racing, there are lots of ways to get involved in the world of cycling — and you don’t have to have a certain body type or set of abilities.
No one knows that better than Jeff Alexander of Vermont Adaptive Ski and Sports, whose motto is "Sports for Every Body."
Alexander is based in Killington, and he helps organize individual and group outings all over the state for people with physical and cognitive disabilities. Among them is Shannon Franks, who is an earth scientist for NASA by day and an adaptive cyclist.
Vermont Edition host Mikaela Lefrak spoke with Jeff Alexander and Shannon Franks. A portion of their conversation is below, and it's been edited and condensed for clarity.
Mikaela Lefrak: Jeff, first tell us a little bit more about Vermont Adaptive Ski & Sports. What does it do?
Jeff Alexander: Well, we've been around for 36 years providing recreational opportunities for those with disabilities in the state of Vermont, and we're statewide — we operate the entire length of the state.
In the wintertime, we're at about seven different ski resorts. And in summertime we're at Burlington Waterfront and at a few of those ski resorts. But we have traveling fleets, and so we go to locations to meet folks to recreate — four traveling paddling fleets, four traveling bike fleets. And we've got an absolute ton of equipment that can serve everybody in the state of Vermont. And as we say downcountry, anybody south of Vermont as well.
Mikaela Lefrak: And you're sporting a hat today I can see in the studio with you, that says "ride with gratitude." It seems like a motto of yours from what I've gotten to know.
Jeff Alexander: It is. It's awesome. It's a movement that, you know, a lot of the trails we play on here in the state of Vermont are on private landowners' [property]. So we want to make sure that we ride with gratitude. And to be able to have that wind in your face and in your hair and enjoy the beautiful backyard we call Vermont, we're definitely gracious for that.
Mikaela Lefrak: Shannon, tell us a little bit about yourself and the type of biking that you do.
Shannon Franks: Well before I got involved with Vermont Adaptive, I did a lot of hand cycling. You know, mostly recreational. I have another thing called racing wheelchair for competition. But for cycling, I, you know, I've done it all around the country. I've taken bike tours throughout New Zealand. So I'm pretty comfortable with a lot of hand cycles, let's put it. It was Vermont Adaptive where I got introduced to the mountain biking.
Mikaela Lefrak: And you, Shannon, told our producer that you had an accident nearly 30 years ago. at this point, that has, you know, since set you down this path that you're on today (no pun intended about the path). But could you tell us a little bit about what happened and how you found your way into adaptive sports?
Shannon Franks: Wow. I don't know if I found the way or it found me. But yeah, that's true. I was an undergrad in northern Wisconsin, I was very active, I rock climbed, I skied, I mountain biked, I hiked. I was actually on my way out to Colorado in November to go skiing and literally had a snowboard in the back of my car. But we never made it. Got in an automobile accident, woke up a week and a half later as a paraplegic. So you know, then you just try to build your life back piece by piece, and figure it out as it went.
For me that first step was going back to college, which I did right away. I was in the hospital for four months. And then soon as the school season started — I'm from New Jersey — I left home and went back to northern Wisconsin. I said, "I don't know if I'm gonna be able to finish it here," because I went to a school, frankly, that never had anybody in a wheelchair because of all the snow that's out there. But I said, "You know, I'm not gonna give up."
So slowly, we rebuilt my life. I was fortunate that that college had an adaptive sports program. So I became a guinea pig for all of the students who wanted — needed to teach people how to adaptively ski and how to adaptively rock climb. So like I said, it kind of found me as much as I found it.
Mikaela Lefrak: Did you like being the guinea pig?
Shannon Franks: I loved it. Anything, yeah, you know, sign me up. Whatever you want to do, sign me up.
Mikaela Lefrak: Well, you've been doing adaptive sports for a long time. Now you sound like an old pro in many ways.
Jeff, I bet your organization works with a lot of folks who are just at the beginnings of their journey, trying to figure out how to use their body in new ways in the outdoors. Can you talk about like, those initial conversations you have with people when they come to you?
Jeff Alexander: Yes, you know, I mean, everyone is — everybody deserves to play. And everybody has the ability to play, but on a different level. And we try to level the playing field by taking the ability that a participant does have, and using the equipment we have, and adapting it with, you know, special techniques and special pieces of equipment to make sure that folks can get out on those trails or on the road or on the snow.
Sometimes a successful day is just putting on a pair of boots for skiing and walking around. Sometimes the successful day is getting out on the snow and maybe sliding 3 or 4 feet. So you know, we really measure the success in the smiles that we see on a daily basis as well, in that respect.
Mikaela Lefrak: Shannon, you live in DC right now. But I hear you're making the move up to Vermont, hopefully, maybe? Are these forms of accessible outdoor sports one of the reasons why you're hoping to come up?
Shannon Franks: Yeah, that's exactly it. Yeah, I got about three weeks maybe left until I move up there. And yeah, that's the goal, was to go up there and live the life. You know, some of those things I can do down here. But frankly, I could do them a lot better up there.
Mikaela Lefrak: Shannon, when you move up to Vermont, are there any sports that you're excited to do more or to get a bit better at or try for the first time?
Shannon Franks: I kinda foresee that I'm going to be helping out with the [Vermont Adaptive] program in any way I can. So programs that I'm not super comfortable with myself, I'm just going to try and lend a hand. But I think the most likely to things that I'll focus on is I want to become a better skier in the winter. And then in the summer, I'll probably be mountain biking with the program and road biking as much as I can of my own. and going out in my racing chair also on my own. So it'll be an active lifestyle, somehow outside.
Mikaela Lefrak: Mountain biking to me looks so fun, but also absolutely terrifying. Any words of encouragement for somebody listening out here who's like in Vermont but thinking about it, seeing people about biking, but is just a little too nervous to try — such as one radio host.
Shannon Franks: Probably the best thing that people could do is actually go and see if they're uncomfortable. After you see it, after you meet the Vermont Adaptive group, there's a level of comfort, and that's when you can make that decision properly. And most likely that decision will be, "Let's do it."
Jeff Alexander: Definitely, yeah, we've got a lot of professionals that are out there with everybody and making you feel comfortable, and not pushing everybody to, you know, terrain — pushing folks into different areas where they're not really ready to be. We start off slow. And it might not be for everybody, who knows. But I highly recommend giving it a try.
And Vermont has you know, 29 different chapters of Vermont Mountain Bike Association. So there's 29 different pods of trails throughout the entire state with all different levels of trails and for all different abilities. So I think there is a trail of Vermont for everybody.
Broadcast at noon Wednesday, Aug. 16, 2023; rebroadcast at 7 p.m. This episode of Vermont Edition also featured a segment on the Lamoille Valley Rail Trail with guest Michele Boomhower, a policy director at the Vermont Agency of Transportation, and an interview with Hugo Houle, a professional cyclist from Quebec.