By Laurel Dudley
Talk to people who know Cindy Conlin, the five-foot-two woman with the radiating smile, and they’ll tell you that she exudes so much enthusiasm it’s contagious. The 51-year-old, who has been teaching adaptive ski lessons with Ogden Valley Adaptive Sports since 2014, never imagined her passions in life would converge. But they did, after she took what she calls a giant leap of faith and followed her heart. Here’s a glimpse into her story.
Cindy grew up in New Jersey as the youngest of five kids. Her parents had met skiing, and her dad was so dedicated to the sport he routinely took Cindy and her siblings on weekend ski trips north to Vermont’s Mad River Glen—it was a seven hour drive each way.
Cindy used hand-me-down gear that didn’t always fit, and she wore mitten liners made of wool that made her hands itch because, as she eventually found out, she was allergic to wool. But despite the discomfort, the piercing New England cold, and slopes that turned into slabs of ice, she fell in love with skiing. When her high school guidance counselor asked her what she wanted to do in life, she responded eagerly, “Ski moguls!”
At the University of New Hampshire, Cindy majored in English and communications and kept skiing, visiting nearly every mountain in New Hampshire and Maine. She was the type of skier who instinctively stopped to check on others—whether it was to help people put their skis back on after a fall, or to check and make sure no one was hurt.
After college, she wanted to work on a ski hill, but her family and friends repeatedly dissuaded her. “You can’t make a living being a ski instructor!” they said. So, she worked at several different preschools instead, became a newspaper copyeditor and eventually homed in on the field that would become her profession, web design and development.
The mountains continued to call though, and for years Cindy thought about ski patrolling. But having never seen any women in the job, she felt intimidated. At 30, she finally joined the Mad River Glen volunteer patrol, where to her surprise she met four ski-patroller women. They showed her how to circumvent brute strength with good technique and finesse, especially when it came to using the rescue toboggan, and they helped her develop skills that eventually led her to get a senior certification from the National Ski Patrol.
In the early 2000s, Cindy became aware of something else that would impact the trajectory of her life: website accessibility. “It became my mission,” she said. Long before the concept got much attention, Cindy made sure that every website she built could be read by screen readers to accommodate people who were visually impaired; she also made sure her websites could be navigated by clicking not only a mouse but also the tab button, important for people with physical disabilities.
As she delved into the nuances of website technologies, she decided to do something else. Following her deep-seated drive to help others, she enrolled in a part-time master’s program in special education and planned to become a teacher.
But that plan didn’t happen.
Part way through the program when Cindy was 34, her father, whom she adored, died of cancer. The loss was devastating. Life puttered on, but didn’t feel the same.
On a late afternoon walk in the summer of 2006, an overwhelming sense of urgency washed over her: Don’t wait to live the life you’ve always wanted. She pictured her dad, grinning from ear to ear, saying, “Go for it!” By then, Cindy had already discovered skiing in Utah and loved it. To be true to herself, she knew the what she needed to do.
Late that fall, feeling scared yet emboldened, she quit her job, moved to northern Utah and joined the Powder Mountain ski patrol in what she calls a giant leap of faith.
Initially, it wasn’t obvious how this new life would pan out. Since her ski patrol salary didn’t come close to covering her bills, she made the pivotal decision to start a web design company, and she took whatever business she could get. The next summer, no longer tied to rigid hours and an office cubicle, she went back to the New Hampshire seacoast, swimming, scuba diving, and spending time with family when she wasn’t building websites.
She returned to Utah the next winter. When her brother lovingly asked her when she was going to stop moving around and get a real job, she said she hoped never. For Cindy, splitting her time between two places she loved, doing things she loved, was a lifestyle she never wanted to end. So far, it hasn’t.
For 12 consecutive seasons, Cindy worked in ski patrol at Powder Mountain and may have continued were it not for a burgeoning sense that she needed something more. When she discovered Ogden Valley Adaptive Sports (then known as Snowbasin Adaptive Sports Education Foundation) in 2013, she became a volunteer.
That old desire to teach, which she thought she had left behind with icy New England winters and conventional work hours, resurfaced. This time, she found a more perfect fit. Melding her passion for skiing with her unshakable desire to increase accessibility and help others, Cindy became a certified adaptive ski instructor in 2014. She loved it so much that, three years later, she left ski patrolling altogether.
“This is where my heart is,” she says about teaching adaptive skiing. “I love being able to help people.”
Barbara Oleynick, 63, has skied with Cindy for the past four seasons. “From the minute I get to the mountain, Cindy helps me with every little thing,” she says. “This isn’t just a job Cindy is doing.”
For Barbara, who’s legally blind, trust is the linchpin that allows her to ski. She says that Cindy explains things with such specificity that Barbara feels like she can ski the way she did before she had vision loss. “To be able to get speed and go for it is such a gift because you don’t get that in life with vision loss,” she says. Barbara especially loves skiing quick ups and downs, known as rollers, which are all the more fun when she hears Cindy, close behind, whooping with delight, too.
For 13-year-old Cohen Sargent, who has autism, recalling names and faces even among his extended family is hard. But his mom, Sarah, says that as soon as she tells him they are on their way to ski with Cindy, he laughs the entire ride to the mountain.
Cindy started teaching Cohen how to ski in 2015, which led him to participate in his first OVAS ski race, known as race day. He was so excited about the medals he won that he brought them under his covers when he went to bed that night.
“We are so grateful for all Cindy has brought to Cohen’s life,” says mom Sarah. “Cohen can be a handful, and she’s a pro with him.”
Kids seem to really love Cindy, say her OVAS colleagues, although they can’t quite pinpoint why. “Maybe it’s because she’s a kid at heart,” says OVAS program coordinator Karen Bradley.
Or maybe, it’s because she’s living the life she was meant to live, fusing her passions and sharing her joy.