Q&A with Becky Zimmermann, President and CEO, National Sports Center for the Disabled
By Troy Hawks
Stories of perseverance, trauma, determination, struggle, disappointment, hard work, athletic achievement, triumph, and an occasional tear; it’s just another day at work for Becky Zimmermann, president and CEO of the National Sports Center for the Disabled (NSCD).
NSCD is based in Winter Park with administrative offices at Sports Authority Field at Mile High. Zimmermann’s desk is just a few chain lengths away from the North end zone.
She grew up in Evergreen, earned her MBA at the University of Colorado, and she’s been NSCD’s CEO since 2012. She’s well recognized for her work in planning and designing major resorts around the world including Hakuba 47 in Japan.
This year America’s longest running competitive ski race, the Wells Fargo Ski Cup, celebrates its 40th running. It’s the signature fund raiser for the NSCD and draws 5,000 fans to Winter Park Resort. Here’s more from our chat with Becky Zimmermann.
What’s the vibe like with the Wells Fargo Cup just weeks away?
To have a 40th anniversary event is pretty phenomenal, especially when it’s tied to a bank. What’s so amazing about this is that the relationship has stood the test of time including a number of acquisitions. It’s a true honor for us to be partnered with Wells Fargo on this amazing event, we’ll have about 5,000 attendees that participate over the weekend.
Watch college student Shannon Williams tell how the Wells Fargo Cup inspires:
How excited are you about the recent success of NSCD skiers and riders?
Going back to 2010 Paralympics in Vancouver, if NSCD was a nation, they would have won the third most medals in alpine sports. We didn’t quite place that high using that same criteria this time in Sochi, because we had a lot of fourth places. But in Sochi, there were 34 athletes from six countries who had at one point trained with the NSCD, that’s pretty phenomenal.
What do you attribute it to?
I think fundamentally it comes down to the coaching. It’s just like any other sport, and it all comes down to how well the athletes are prepared. You tend to go to a place because of their coach, or their training, so people come to us because Erik Petersen is the NSCD head coach, and he has a tremendous track record in not only getting athletes to the Paralympics, but medaling.
How does the exposure of the Paralympics impact NSCD?
These last winter Paralympics were by far more televised than they ever had been, and it worked very well for the network, they were happy with the viewership, so they’re committing to similar coverage for the next summer and winter Paralympics.
One result is an increase in interest from athletes to compete at that level, so it’s inspiring. People with disabilities see those Paralympic athletes on TV and say “I didn’t even know that was possible.”
So we definitely get phones saying “I want to learn to ski, I want learn to ski race, I want to go to Korea in 2018!”
But there’s also just more overall awareness. During the Paralympics I got an email from a writer in California who said he had been up late one night, and watching the events and he had no idea.
There must be many people that move to Colorado for just this program?
We do, and I will actually get phone calls from realtors in Winter Park, who say “Hey, I’ve got this client here that thinking of buying but they are also thinking about somewhere else, can you talk to them about NSCD?” [laugh}
So you’re helping to make the sale?
Yep, helping to make the sale, I should get a piece of the commission as a donation or something [laugh]. But as I mentioned, we serve about 3,000 people a year and about 30 percent of them come from outside the state. People will ask, if you’re in Colorado, why do you call yourselves National, and it’s because we have a national reputation, we’re national leaders, and we have a national reach.
The U.S. has been at war for a while now, how does that impact NSCD?
There is absolutely a continued increase in veterans with disabilities and combat wounded warriors in particular, who look for, or could benefit from, the types of programs the NSCD offers. We’re constantly looking for ways to add programming, to tailor it to the needs, which are a little bit different from our other participants.
Do you offer specific programs?
One of the things that we do is we have a partnership with a non-profit out of Maryland that does kayaking paddle sports for veterans, so we participate with them here in Colorado. We’ll get a veteran that comes out to learn to kayak and as he gains his confidence back, and can overcome some of the daily difficulties we’ll move him into an assistant instructor role with our recreation participants. So as that confidence increases, we put them in that position of leadership; it’s to help them progress with their healing.
We’ve also added a Paralympic experience for military veterans. We’ll get 50 veterans either from the VA Hospital or Wounded Warriors in Colorado Springs, or others that just want to come on their own. We take them to Winter Park and they do sled hockey, biathlon, but the most popular last year was curling. It kind of surprised us but that was the buzz on the bus.
How did you first become involved with NSCD?
I’ve been involved with NSCD for a long time. I started with them in the early 2000s as a volunteer ski instructor. And I did that, because having skied at Winter Park, I’d seen it, I’d seen this thing go on, I didn’t really know what it was, but I had seen it and I had a friend from high school who was volunteering and I got hooked.
And then later I was asked to serve on the board of trustees, so I went from volunteer to board member and then two years ago when the organization was looking at what leadership looked like and what future looked like and things like that…I knew I couldn’t just sit on the sidelines and watch it.
So you don’t have to be a person with a disability to volunteer and teach lessons?
Volunteers are a really critical part of our program. A volunteer hour is as important as a dollar is to us. We have an active volunteer core of about 1,200 and about 700 of them are volunteer ski instructors. This year we had 184 new volunteers.
You have to be trained on how to teach so we put you through clinics and in your first year we’re not going to put you into a particular difficult situation. My first year I taught kids from Children’s Hospital who had diabetes, they we all better skiers than I was. And after that I worked with people with developmental disabilities, and that was more of a challenge but by then I had built up enough confidence so I felt I could do that.
Is sponsorship difficult, particularly in a non-Olympic year?
A lot of our sponsors are support our entire organization. We serve 3,000 people a year in therapeutic recreation lessons, and these are people of all ages, of all types of disabilities, and we do about 18,000 lessons in 15 different sports. So that sponsorship is of the organization as a whole. Those funds are consistent whether or not it’s an Olympic year.
Sponsorship probably more impacts the individual athlete, because they need to secure their training fees. But the athletes, as it gets closer to an Olympic year, there sponsorships also tend to pick up.
How does this job move you?
I’ve always just been so impacted by the results and outcome of what this organization does and how it literally changes lives. I see it every day, I cry pretty much every day [laugh].
And then I retell those stories and it happens all over. [laugh]
So I now have the best job in the world.