Reposted from USASA.org
“I have Autism and so many friends I made through snowboarding helped me overcome Autism” explains twenty-five-year-old USASA Catskill Series member, Zach Elder.
At two-years-old Zach Elder was diagnosed with Autism and despite the physical therapy, occupational therapy, and applied behavioral science at six years old he still was non-verbal. Parents Rich and Karen Elder along with Zach’s older brother Douglas were avid skiers and spent their weekends up at Windham Mountain, NY enjoying a respite from the New York City hustle and bustle which opened some of the first doors to Zach’s snowboarding career. Windham, NY is also home to the Adaptive Sports Foundation (ASF), an organization that provides sports and recreation opportunities for people with physical and cognitive disabilities which seemed like a perfect fit for Zach. “It was great to get him on skis and he loved being on snow” Rich remembers, but three years later, Zach was ready for something new. Zach, who was still non-verbal, made it very clear that he was done with skiing and wanted to snowboard. “I saw kids enjoying themselves snowboarding and I let it be known that I wanted to do that too” Zach recalls.
At the time snowboarding wasn’t an offering of the ASF but it was clear that this was Zach’s single-minded focus and he became the first snowboarder in the program. “Zach has a passion for snowboarding — and we have followed this passion,” Zach’s father Rich said.
Now nearly sixteen years later, Zach’s passion has taken him and the community of athletes with intellectual disabilities (ID) to new levels. Zach, a decorated USASA athlete in all five disciplines, has competed at three Winter X Games Unified events where he nabbed two X Games medals — a silver with Danny Davis and bronze with Scotty James — and is slated to compete at his first Special Olympic World Games in Kazan, Russia next year.
Zach’s passion has also led him to be a pioneer and an advocate for more opportunities and inclusion for ID athletes. In 2020, he was invited to Park City, Utah by the USASA Big Mountain West Series to be the lead rider and launch the first Rail Jam event for ID athletes. In 2019, Zach spearheaded the USASA National Championships Snowboardcross ID event, the first of its kind. And with sights set on supporting the next generations of athletes, Zach helped to found the Ride2Live Project, an initiative coordinated with ASF to introduce Autistic and cognitively delayed children/teens to snowboarding.
Zach Elder and fellow SBX ID competitors prepare to drop into the first USASA National Snowboardcross for athletes with intellectual disabilities.
“USASA has really opened the doors for me and let me take on something I’d never done before,” Zach said, reflecting on the support from Bob Basil and the Catskill Mountain Series crew. “Being included and treated like everyone else and the friendships I’ve made supporting each other over the years. That is my favorite part of USASA”
Rich concurs, “The whole interaction and the inclusion part of USASA is huge, to be in the group and race and compete and accomplish. A lot of kids with ID don’t have that opportunity and it showed Zach that he could do things like neurotypical kids.” Rich remembers how everything changed because of the interactions at USASA events and because of snowboarding, “his speaking and mannerisms and everything changed, he became a better snowboarder and better with Autism, I don’t know where Zach would be without it.”
Zach’s focus and passion are still single-minded and honed in on a better future for snowboarding and for athletes with ID. He’s got big goals — slopestyle, boardercross, and rail jam at Special Olympic events, more athletes with ID snowboarding and drive that ensures he’ll get it done.