Disabilities no match for Zepfel's determination to hit the ski slopes
When 12-year-old Lyssa Zepfel hits the ski slopes, she doesn't stick to the bunny hills.
She heads straight for the tallest ones -- and she likes to take on her friends in a race to the bottom.
"I love to ski because it's challenging, but I'm always getting better," Lyssa said, "and I like to go really fast."
Even off the slopes, the Westerville sixth-grader doesn't slow down. She participates in Girl Scouts and likes to swim and takes hip-hop dance classes.
Her mother, Chrissy Zepfel, never imagined her daughter could be so active. Lyssa was born with spina bifida, a birth defect in which the backbone and spinal canal do not close before birth. She is paralyzed below the knees.
"We weren't sure how she would do with everything in life, and she's far exceeded every expectation that the doctors told us," Mrs. Zepfel said. "She's just a typical kid."
Lyssa has had plenty of help. She started skiing when she was just 6 years old with help from the Adaptive Adventure Sports Coalition, a volunteer group based in Powell that helps disabled individuals stay active through skiing, kayaking, cycling, sailing, fishing and other sports.
Each weekend during the winter, Lyssa rides to Mad River Mountain or Snow Trails with her friends in the Genoa Middle School Ski Club. There, she meets a volunteer who helps ready her equipment.
She straps herself into a seat situated atop skis and uses poles for steering and support.
Sometimes her parents and younger siblings tag along so the whole family can enjoy an afternoon on the slopes.
Sue Munday, communications coordinator for the Delaware County Board of Developmental Disabilities, volunteers with the Adaptive Adventure Sports Coalition. She's seen firsthand how sports can benefit individuals with disabilities.
"(Lyssa) was never deterred by her disability," Munday said. "The sense of empowerment that she and her parents have gotten is amazing."
The coalition was formed in 1997 as a chapter of the national organization Disabled Sports USA.
It currently includes about 370 volunteers who help run programming for children and adults with cognitive and physical disabilities, with a special focus on serving wounded veterans.
Coalition President David Holzer said it gives participants a new lease on life.
"Our philosophy is, if someone has a disability, we're going to find a way to get them out and have some fun," Holzer said.
He added: "Too often they end up sitting on the couch or playing computer games, but once they get up, they start to realize they can do this -- and they say, 'If I can do this, I can do anything.' "
The group also focuses on teaching the families of disabled individuals how to get outdoors and be more active together.
Holzer said the group's cycling program has been the most popular in recent years. Other programs include kayaking and water skiing on the Scioto River, boating at Alum Creek and ice skating at area ice rinks.
Adaptive equipment is available for individuals with nearly any level of disability.
For participants such as Lyssa Zepfel, it's proof that a disability never has to hold a person back.
"I don't let it affect me," she said. "Sometimes I may get a little mad if I have to do something differently, but I always find a way."