Fifteen year old Tristan Dishon bobs in the water outside the Marina Cay Resort, hands on the rope, ready to go. Two volunteers wade beside him, positioning his adaptive wakeboard into position for launching. The boat pulls forward slightly until the rope grows taught.
“Hit it!” Dishon shouts from the water and within seconds he’s up.
The lake is a little choppy, but he cruises right along, playing in the wake of the boat, skirting from one side to the other as it jives from left to right.
Dishon runs for nearly two full minutes before a particularly big jumps sends him flying back into the water with a splash and a chorus of cheers erupts from the boat.
The adrenaline, Dishon says later, is the best part.
“It’s that sense of accomplishment that you’re actually able to do it,” said Dishon, who was paralyzed in a road grader accident in 2007.
The Kalispell resident was one of 38 adaptive athletes that participated in a watersports outing with Moving Forward Adaptive Sports this summer. Moving Forward is a nonprofit organization established by the twice paralyzed and multitalented Starla Hilliard-Barnes to expand outdoor opportunities for people living with disabilities in the Flathead.
Over three weekends, differently-abled athletes and veterans had the opportunity to give wakeboarding, wakesurfing and tubing a try. Some even drove as long as nine to 10 hours to participate.
But according to Hilliard-Barnes, the experience wouldn’t have been possible without help from Whitefish local Garth Wells. Wells, 35, owns boat dealership, Whitefish Marine, and in June became the new leaseholder of the Marina Cay Resort. After mutual friends connected Wells with Hilliard-Barnes, he knew he wanted to help — and had the watersports resources to do so.
“At Whitefish Marine, we’ve been looking for something to give back to for a while and once we started talking it made sense,” Wells said. “With anything that you’re passionate about, you want to share it with other people. It just feels really great to be in a position where we can donate time and equipment and boats to the Moving Forward athletes. They’re inspiring — more than anything for me, their unconquerable spirit is just fantastic.”
Wells provided boats, an adaptive wakeboard and the use of the resort for the three outings with assistance from customers Jeff Fuller and Jeff Butler, Whitefish Marine pro shop manager Cole Osborn, Reed Trontel with Synergy 360, and multiple Moving Forward volunteers.
“You’re talking to a group of people that have overcome tremendous obstacles in their life. For me, the most amazing part of it is just their attitudes in general,” Wells said. “[When] somebody succeeds or fails to get up …. everybody is super supportive. There’s rounds of applause.”
Moving Forward volunteer Joey Goetsch, 28, of Kalispell said seeing the athlete’s reactions was one of the highlights of his volunteer time on the water.
“The best part I would say, is hearing these guys talk about how they’re overcoming and obstacle or how they’re getting over that fear, experiencing something that they used to do and now they can [again],” he said.
For Hilliard-Barnes, that statement rings especially true.
“It’s kind of funny — I actually forgot I was paralyzed once we started taking off,” she said. “I actually tried to stand up.”
Before her accidents, Hilliard-Barnes was an avid athlete, participating in extreme sports like skydiving and mountain biking, among others. She was paralyzed in a hit-and-run accident in 2009 and just when she was learning to walk again, was tragically struck in a 2015 car accident, sending her back to square one.
But despite her paralysis, she never lost her love for extreme sports. In 2014, Hilliard-Barnes founded Moving Forward Adaptive Sports and continues expanding the group’s offerings year after year. Thanks to Wells and his team, they’ve added wakesurifng and wake boarding to the list of activities.
“I would just say how big Garth’s heart was coming into this and how much stoke he had — Once he saw that the athletes got up, I think he was almost more stoked than the athletes were,” she said, smiling. “It takes truly a whole community to make it work and keep it free for everyone.”
Reporter Mackenzie Reiss can be reached at (406) 758-4433 or firstname.lastname@example.org.