Josh Elliott (front) and his teammates on the U.S. Paralympic Ski Team have some fun before the kids’ race at Adaptive Spirit 2016.  

At first impression, it’s an unlikely partnership.

Each year, telecommunications executives from across the nation come together in Vail, Colorado.

The mission?

To celebrate the U.S. Paralympic Ski Team and raise the majority of the team’s funding over the course of a weekend.

It’s a tradition that’s been going strong for 21 years.

To understand the backstory, you’ll have to travel back to the mid-1980s, when a 23-year-old ski bum named Bob Meserve was paralyzed in a skiing accident. Meserve went on to race for the U.S. Disabled Ski Team (now the U.S. Paralympic Ski Team), discovering a new way to embrace the sport he loved.

Meserve’s friend and fellow ski bum, Steve Raymond – who went on to become VP of Affiliate Relations for DirecTV – was there every step of the way for support.

Fast-forward to 1995, and the U.S. Disabled Ski Team found out it had lost a major sponsor and was in danger of folding. Meserve, now retired from racing, reached out to his friend Steve for help – and that’s where it all began.

Raymond set out to plan a networking weekend for his colleagues in the telecom industry, with the parallel goal of raising money to save the team. That first year, “Adaptive Spirit” drew around 200 attendees and raised $100,000, rescuing the U.S. Disabled Ski Team from extinction.

Adaptive Spirit has only gained momentum over the past 21 years. The annual event – now beloved to many in the industry – has generated more than $11 million over that span for the U.S. Paralympic Ski and Snowboard Teams.

More than 1,200 people attended the 2016 edition, generating $1.3 million in total giving to support the athletes.

In addition, many made personal philanthropic donations to the Adaptive Spirit Paralympic Endowment, which was launched at the event’s 20th anniversary last year. The funds from the endowment – now totaling more than $500,000 – will be invested over time to provide funding in perpetuity for the team.

“Getting to know the athletes has really been the best part of this event,” said President and CEO of NetCracker Technology, Andrew Feinberg. “We support a lot of other organizations by sending a check. They’re great causes, and that’s why we’re engaged with them – but they’re faceless to us. This is very personal, and it makes it so much more meaningful.”

The event takes place over a three-day span in Vail, and is a mix of business meetings, networking opportunities and social experiences with the athletes. This year, corporate attendees heard from NCTA President and CEO Michael Powell in a keynote address. Later in the weekend, they raced down an alpine course in teams that included both colleagues and Paralympians.

Other highlights of the weekend included a kids’ ski race, a silent auction that alone raised $93,000, and an awards banquet featuring individual athlete stories on video.

U.S. Paralympic Alpine Team member Andrew Kurka, who also benefits from a personal sponsorship through NetCracker, knows how important Adaptive Spirit is to his team’s livelihood.

“This is the most important event every year for funding our season,” Kurka said. “Personally and as a team, we face a lot of different costs. There are skis, there’s monoski equipment, travel expenses, hotels, competition expenses. But we’re out here chasing a dream. That’s what these people see in us, and that’s why they want to help us out.”

U.S. Paralympic snowboarder Nicole Roundy, who won an overall World Cup globe in snowboard cross this season, agreed that her success would not be possible without Adaptive Spirit.

“This funding goes toward the equipment techs that travel with us, the occupational therapists, everything – it allows us to do what we do,” Roundy said. “I think getting on the mountain with our supporters is huge, and it adds a personal connection instead of just throwing money at something. This is real, and you’re making a real difference in making our dreams come true.”

For Michelle Soltesz, a marketing specialist at Juniper Networks, 2016 marked her second trip to Vail for the event – though her company has been sending representatives for years.

“Adaptive Spirit is set up so that industry specialists come together and they can network, they can do business and they can learn,” Soltesz said. “At the same time, there’s this great fundraising initiative going on where we’re all coming together and raising money for this really important cause. It’s a really nice agenda of working, socializing, networking and competing. It’s so compelling, and that’s why you get such a big crowd coming back every year.”

The event, Soltesz said, has transformed her attitude toward individuals with disabilities – and that’s truly the purpose of it all.

“Years ago, I would’ve been sort of ‘squishy’ about someone who had a physical disability. Like – oh, maybe I shouldn’t look, or maybe I should feel apologetic,” Soltesz said. “But what I’ve learned about these athletes is that at the end of the day, they’re athletes. They compete, and they want to party and socialize. So that’s sort of my takeaway from all of this. Now I don’t look at someone who has a physical disability and go, ‘Oh, gee.’ It’s kind of a ‘cool factor’ – I’m totally impressed.”

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