When one thinks of skiing in the cool of an October fall, mountains and snow usually come to mind. Not for the members of the River City Ski Club in North Carolina.
“The weather was perfect, a little breezy on the downwind passes but nothing too severe” said co-tournament director Chris Austin. “We did not find a cure while we were out there, but we found a heck of a lot of support — more than I ever imagined.”
Members of the club and their fellow Southern and Eastern Region skiers took to the chilly waters of Competition Lake at Fun Junktion Park in Elizabeth City, North Carolina, on October 9 to raise money and awareness for Families of Spinal Muscular Atrophy.
The Haley Mitchell Ski-a-thon to Benefit Families of SMA was a three-round slalom water-ski event that saw 35 skiers from North Carolina, Virginia, Maryland and Delaware compete to raise money in honor of Haley Mitchell, the 2-year-old daughter of Jeff and Valerie Mitchell, longtime members of the club.
In the ski-a-thon, competitors sought pledges per buoy, much like a walk-a-thon. In addition to skier pledges and donations, the club held silent auctions and raffles using prizes donated by Overton's, Straightline Watersports, Coble Water Ski Training Center and MasterCraft Boats.
Haley has Type I Acute SMA or Werdnig-Hoffmann Disease, the severest form of SMA. There is no known cure for SMA, a group of inherited, often fatal diseases that destroys the nerves controlling voluntary movements such as crawling, walking, head and neck control, and swallowing. Although SMA is a killer that affects infants, children and adults, the disease is relatively unknown. SMA is the number one genetic killer of children under age 2. After that it falls to number two, behind cystic fibrosis.
“We had never heard of SMA when Jeff told us the awful news of Haley's condition after a routine checkup when Haley was only four months old,” Austin said. “Haley turned 2 on October 8, which is really significant, because most infants with this disease do not reach that age.”
Initially the tournament was one of four the club puts on annually. “When we were asked to name the tournament, my wife, Barbara, and I thought it would be neat to honor Haley and have a small fundraiser; it was pure luck that the tournament coincided with Haley's second birthday on October 8. The Mitchells agreed to let us use the name only if all proceeds went to the foundation. From that concept this tournament took on a life of its own and grew beyond our wildest dreams,” the Austins said, explaining that the club had received sponsors and donations from as far away as Michigan and Florida.
Barbara Austin, the charity coordinator and co-tournament director, acknowledged, “The success of the tournament is due to the incredible support from the water skiers, business community and public at large. It has been truly amazing the way these people have supported this event. The officials volunteered to work without the usual compensation for rooms and entry fees. The North Carolina Water Ski Association and Raleigh Water Ski Club decided not to buy the usual trophies for the annual Team Slalom Championship. Instead, they donated the money to SMA, and the Brooks Landing Ski Club donated its profits from its last tournament to the cause. We exceeded $23,000 the day of the tournament. Two weeks after the tournament, I am still getting checks in the mail almost daily.”
Cindy Schaefer, president of the North Carolina Chapter of Families of SMA, was on hand for the event. Schaefer said she became a member of the foundation after her son Kevin was diagnosed with the disease and became president of the chapter in 1997. “The disease affects one in 6,000 live births, but one in 40 people are carriers of the gene,” Schaefer said. Both parents have to be carriers for a child to be born with SMA.
Schaefer said she was “absolutely overwhelmed” when Chris and Barbara Austin and the rest of the River City Ski Club presented two checks totaling $23,188. “We weren't expecting that much. We've never had a fundraiser that brought in that much money from one community.”
The club is now planning its tournament schedule for next year and has decided that the Haley Mitchell tournament will become an annual event to honor Haley's birthday.