BY MATT SALIS
Thirty-one years ago, Matt Feeney dove off a cliff at Lake Powell. He was an adrenaline junkie, and diving gave him a particular sense of excitement. But he over-rotated just before impacting the water, and the resulting spinal injury would change tens of thousands of lives. At the time of the accident, Matt wasn’t focused on any of that. He was crushed to think about never again participating in the outdoor snow and water sports he so loved. At age 25, Matt was afraid his beloved outdoor sporting life was over.
But tens of thousands of people with disabilities are thankful Matt is as resilient as he is adventurous. Matt learned to ski without the use of his legs, and he learned to ride a bike pedaling with his hands. He couldn’t let his accident determine his destiny. For a lover of sport with such a strong, natural connection to nature, sitting behind a desk all day just wasn’t going to work. Matt eventually turned his passions into gigs teaching disabled people to ski, and he became a disabled water ski instructor in the summers. But it wasn’t sustainable. It wasn’t enough – financially or emotionally. Matt wanted more, and he was determined to find a way to make a living doing the things he loved. His disability had not kept him off the ski hill, and it certainly wasn’t going to prevent him from turning his passion into a career.
Bringing Sports Programs to the People
In 1999, Matt founded Adaptive Adventures with the goal of providing year-round outdoor sports programs for people with disabilities. He knew starting a non-profit would present major challenges, but his biggest fear wasn’t failure. Matt’s greatest fear was being stuck behind a desk fundraising all day. So he found someone else to fill that chair, and Matt spent his time on the slopes and in the lakes teaching the participants in his programs to excel as disabled athletes.
The programs Adaptive Adventures provides for disabled people around the country are about more than adrenaline or speed down a mountain. “The confidence it brings is life changing,” said Matt about the impact his programs have on the lives of participants. He wants people who face the challenges of disability to know, “You can still find your freedom.”
In the 20 years since its inception, Adaptive Adventures now serves over 2,600 people a year and growing. They have a fleet of ten trucks with sixteen trailers that bring their programs to the people. That’s a big part of the mission – eliminating barriers to participation. While they have programming across the country, the majority of their events take place in Colorado and the surrounding states, and in the Midwest. They even have programs in Puerto Rico now, Matt explained with pride. As he told me they are working on adding scuba diving to the sports offered on the tropical U.S. territory, I could hear the spark of enthusiasm in his voice that has made his mission so successful for the past two decades.
Protectors of Freedom
Whether it is on the mountain in Snowmass, or the warm waters of Puerto Rico, the mission is clear. Matt wants to help people with whom he shares a challenge overcome just like he has since that fateful day in 1988. Adaptive Adventures has seen significant growth overall, but the growth in one particular area brings Matt a patriotic sense of pride.
In 1999, 10% of the non-profit’s participants were U.S. military veterans. Last year, 53% of the people Adaptive Adventures served were the military heroes who served to keep us safe. While the realities of fighting terror are tragic, being a part of the solution for those who so deserve our respect and honor makes his work especially important and fulfilling.
Sports that Matt and his eleven paid staff members offer with the help of a legion of volunteers include cycling, climbing, kayaking, paddleboarding, skiing, dragon boat racing, water skiing, wakeboarding, scuba and rafting. I asked Matt if he had ever considered adding team sports to the lineup. I expected him to site coordination and logistics as limiting factors. His reason for sticking with individual sports surprised me.
Team sports are by definition social events, he explained. When you’re on a wheelchair basketball team, you interact with your teammates. When Matt was relearning the individual sports he so loves with adaptive equipment in the 1990s, instruction was available only on a one-to-one basis. There was nothing social about it. Matt is thrilled that the camps, clinics and other programs Adaptive Adventures provides bring together people with similar obstacles to overcome, and allows them to learn and succeed together. Athletics should not be reserved for elite athletes, Matt explained. Athletics should bring people together not just to push their limits, but also to enjoy each other’s company. There is no better way to show people how much life they have left to live than through the achievements of new friends who face the same challenges.
Keeping the Momentum
Matt’s role has really changed in the twenty years since he was teaching adaptive skiing with an idea bouncing around in his head. Now he spends most of his time on development, which is the non-profit code word for fundraising. From writing grant requests, to organizing their annual fundraiser (to be held on May 29th, 2020), Matt’s experience and connections require him to spend more time than he’d like behind that desk these days. When I asked him what is the biggest challenge Adaptive Adventures faces going forward, Matt didn’t hesitate. “Sustaining this momentum,” he answered. The need for their programming is growing, and they are working hard to bring the sports to the people. But financing a growing enterprise like Adaptive Adventures is a daunting task.
After all that Matt Feeney has overcome, and all the people his mission has served, I have no doubt he’ll find a way to keep his organization thriving and growing well into the future, even if he is stuck behind the desk to make it happen. To help Adaptive Adventures with a tax deductible year-end donation, to learn about programming or to volunteer, please check out their website at adaptiveadventures.org.
Matt Salis writes, speaks, podcasts, directs a non-profit, leads an early sobriety program, coaches soccer at Denver South H.S. and runs (very slowly) around the gravel path that surrounds our beloved Wash Park a couple of times a week. Read more from Matt at SoberAndUnashamed.com.