What’s the Deal with Utah’s Elevate Program?

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Photo credit: iCanShine

This season marks a milestone for the Utah League, with a collaboration between the league’s Corner Canyon HS Team and the United Angels Foundation’s iCanShine to offer a mountain bike program for students with special needs.

As the popularity of interscholastic mountain biking grows, we are finding that more youth are eager to throw their leg over a top tube to give it a try. However, sometimes there are barriers to entry that necessitate a unique approach. This past fall season, our Utah League has broken down one of these barriers by enabling students with special needs to participate in events:

“Our vision is to enable EVERY Utah teen to strengthen body, mind, and character through the lifelong sport of cycling—and this is another way we will do so.”

Utah League Director Lori Harward’s passion for this topic is tremendous; she understands the deep desire for participation felt by these kids:

Because I have a 24-year old Down Syndrome daughter (Alexandra), I have a soft spot in my heart for these kids. They want so badly to be included and be like the other kids. I wish there had been something like this for my daughter when she was little.”

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Photo credit: Red Desert Studios

The boy you see in the image on the far right, Elijah Palmer, was the team manager for the Corner Canyon High School Mountain Bike Team in 2014. Lori met him and his father at their end-of-season team party, where she was shocked and astonished to find out that Elijah had been to every race and was an amazing supporter of the team, even though he couldn’t even ride a bike.

She told his dad that if he found a way to get Elijah on a bike, that she would find a way for him to become a participant at a race. Early ideas were to have Elijah riding tandem with his dad; however, Elijah’s father found the iCanRide program and spearheaded efforts to bring it to Utah. Within no time, Elijah learned how to ride a bike himself and became Utah’s first Elevate Rider.

Throughout the season, many Elevate riders began showing up amongst the league’s 76 teams. It was evident that something truly impactful was on the horizon.

The Elevate courses were substantially shorter and completely visible from the finish line. The crowd’s enthusiasm was clear as the air was filled with cheers the entire time Elevate riders were on course. Even when they had to walk a short section, the crowd would erupt with shouts of encouragement when they got back on their bikes.

This program was a true fan favorite, not only for the spectators and families in attendance but also for the student-athletes themselves. Some venues did not bear the necessary terrain for an Elevate course, and at these races league staff were bombarded with questions from parents, volunteers, teams, and student-athletes: Why weren’t they running Elevate at that race? Actions speak louder than words, and the supply of eager volunteers greatly exceeded demand.

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Photo credit: Red Desert Studios

Maybe the truest testament of all, as the kids were riding through the finish line, you would look around to see most of the audience was in tears.

Perhaps the best illustration of how well this program was received can be found at the season’s final awards banquet. As Elevate riders were presented with honorary state championship jerseys and medals, the entire audience stood up at once to applaud them. Standing ovations are not unusual, but typically one or two people start to stand and the rest of the crowd follows. What was unusual about this was that the entire audience of well over 2,000 people stood up at once, and out of all of these people the high school student-athletes were cheering the loudest.

The high school kids realize that this is a big deal. They are extremely proud to be a part of an organization that supports inclusivity to the Nth degree.


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