When she arrived at the University of Vermont from her hometown just outside of Amish country in Pennsylvania, Cayla Hammaker was looking for a change. Her time spent both in and out of the classroom in Burlington, Vt., provided exactly that — and then some.
Hammaker, training and education program specialist with Disabled Sports USA, contemplated a career in physical therapy when she first arrived on the UVM campus in 2013. But a summer job at an adaptive wilderness camp followed up by an internship on the slopes with Vermont Adaptive ignited her passion and altered her path, directly leading to her position today.
Hammaker is PSIA Adaptive Alpine Level 1-certified, trained to assist athletes classified with vision-related diagnoses and intellectual/cognitive-related diagnoses as they train and compete in three-track, four-track, mono-ski and bi-ski. She recently returned from helping to coordinate Disabled Sports USA’s Hartford Ski Spectacular at the Beaver Run Resort in Breckenridge, Colo., one of the nation’s largest winter sports festivals for people with disabilities. The festival welcomes more than 800 athletes who participate in learn-to-ski and snowboard lessons, a weeklong race camp, nordic skiing and free clinics in nordic, biathlon, curling and sled hockey.
In March, she is scheduled to present a talk on the work of Disabled Sports USA at the Nonprofit Technology Conference at Baltimore Convention Center. Always happy to talk about the work she loves, Hammaker took some time to share her passion with New England Ski Journal:
New England Ski Journal: Having grown up outside of Philadelphia, did you do much skiing as a youth?
Cayla Hammaker: My parents took my two brothers and me to the Poconos for the first time when I was 11 or 12. I immediately took to the challenge and excitement of skiing. I was fortunate to go about once every year, or every other year afterward, either with my family or joining friends who were taking trips — all local within Pennsylvania. As a kid I loved sports. I was the type of kid who liked to try everything, whether it be field hockey, tennis, skateboarding, lacrosse, horseback riding, you name it. I was fortunate that my parents supported my ambition to try out all these sports.
NESJ: What was it about the University of Vermont that appealed to you?
Hammaker: When I visited, I was drawn to the culture, the community and the amazing access to outdoor recreation. Having grown up in a small town nearer to Amish country than to Philly, this was the change of pace I was looking for.
NESJ: Did you ski while at UVM?
Hammaker: I absolutely did. I was a proud passholder at Sugarbush for three years. I must say though, I am slightly partial to the more local mountain, Bolton Valley, as that is where I became fully immersed in adaptive sports and will forever feel like home.
NESJ: How were you introduced to Vermont Adaptive?
Hammaker: I had seen Vermont Adaptive tabling at several UVM campus fairs, but had not been able to volunteer up to that point due to scheduling conflicts. I applied to their summer internship, and was thrilled to be accepted. Interning with Vermont Adaptive in Burlington was my first truly immersive adaptive sports experience. We did all sorts of summer activities — sailing, cycling, hiking, rock climbing, surfing, kayaking, canoeing — nearly anything you could imagine.
NESJ: And that experience led you to work with Vermont Adaptive during the winter, too?
Hammaker: When the coordinator asked me if I would like to stay on for the winter, I was torn knowing that I had a busy semester coming up. And while I wanted to spend 5-6 days at the mountain teaching, I just didn’t know if it was going to be feasible. Needless to say, I was persuaded and have absolutely no regrets. Since that season, adaptive skiing has been and continues to be one of my greatest passions.
NESJ: How did this experience influence your academic choices?
Hammaker: After my exposure to adaptive sports, I took a strong interest in learning more about physical activity/exercise pertaining to individuals with disabilities, whether it be modifications, exercise protocols, how to get more people more active and how to decrease the stigma around their involvement. I wanted to help others attain that positive space as well, and made an even harder push to get involved in things I felt passionate about on UVM’s campus and in the Burlington community.
I had a few classes led by a professor who has an equal passion for this and helped me to become involved in several of the programs she ran on campus, one working with individuals who have multiple sclerosis and another with a Special Olympics Unified Fitness Program. I ended up writing my senior thesis on “Exploring the Relationship Between Physical Activity and Symptom Severity in Adolescents with Autism Spectrum Disorder” in an effort to further understand the true impact adaptive sports could have on individuals, particularly individuals with ASD, in this instance. My studies also fueled my understanding of the utter importance of physical activity for everybody.
NESJ: Talk a bit about the work you do now with Disabled Sports USA?
Hammaker: I love so many things about it. I love the community, our network of chapters, the mission, my colleagues, the work we do. I could go on and on. In my position, I work with our training initiative, Adapt2Achieve, to connect adaptive sport providers with training opportunities to improve services for their communities. I have also taken on the role of coordinating and managing our annual Adapt2Achieve Leadership Conference, which will be held this year in Colorado Springs with the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee, and will be an exciting opportunity to host conversations around inclusion. I love my role because it is dynamic, and with the field constantly evolving, my involvement is ever evolving.
NESJ: Who is one of your biggest influencers in your chosen career path?
Hammaker: The coordinator of the Burlington/Bolton Vermont Adaptive Program, Kelly Wash, was my supervisor throughout my internship and was/is a huge mentor to me. She showed me what it means to be unfailingly compassionate and what it looks like to embody a mission of giving everybody an opportunity to participate in all activities.
NESJ: Describe the feeling you get working with these athletes.
Hammaker: I would describe the feeling as pure joy. It is truly empowering to watch somebody else become empowered through sport. It is amazing to see the confidence, self-growth and independence that can come out of some of these experiences. I love the sense of community in the adaptive sport world. Everybody — athletes, volunteers, staff included — is there because they want to be there.
NESJ: Why is participating in skiing so fulfilling for participating athletes?
Hammaker: What is really neat to me is to see athletes who are sometimes labeled as children with behavior issues thrive in an active setting. I love that sport is about “doing” rather than “limiting.” We constantly encourage athletes to challenge themselves. I think one of my favorite parts of teaching skiing and adaptive sports in general is seeing some of these kids excel in a ski season, as they channel their energy to a goal, and are given some freedom in how to accomplish that goal. Some might have a goal to ski a black diamond, to ski the trees, et cetera, and this is totally achievable with time. This helps teach our athletes how to create short-term goals for themselves in order to achieve a long-term goal. It teaches the importance of patience and persistence.
I love that nature can be as educational as a classroom for our athletes. Equally, there are often athletes who do not thrive in a team sports setting, but find that they thrive in a more individual sport. To see them develop a passion for their activity as well as to see how thrilled their parents are is also a neat experience.
NESJ: What is the biggest challenge about your job? What is the biggest reward?
Hammaker: The biggest reward of my job is seeing the impact of our programs. While I might be biased as I strongly believe in the importance of education as a means to achieve inclusion, it is amazing to see when others not only stand behind the same mission, but begin to spread the developed resources and content to a greater audience. The community that we work with and that works with us is great. The biggest challenge is sometimes figuring out what project to tackle next. My colleagues and I are all very passionate about what we do, and often are eager to tackle everything at once.
NESJ: What are your future career aspirations?
Hammaker: I try my best to live in the present and to be open to opportunities that come my way. I would love to continue to be involved in the development of the adaptive sports industry, but just what that entails I’m not sure yet.