Cerebral palsy couldn’t stop Mike Gibbens from water skiing. In the early ‘90s the North Dakota man saw a TV story about Texas Adaptive Aquatics, an organization which uses custom devices to help people with disabilities ski up and down Lake Houston. Mike made the trip out, tried the sport for the first time, and fell in love with it. 

Mike told his parents Ron and Faye Gibbens all about what they were doing in Texas, and that they should invite the team up to thrill fellow North Dakotans with disabilities. His parents were the perfect audience for such a proposal, as they had founded the North Dakota Association for the Disabled (NDAD). The Gibbens and NDAD held the inaugural Escape to the Lake in 1994.

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The first event at Devils Lake got off to a slow start. Only four participants showed up including Mike Gibbens, and NDAD had to borrow a usable boat from a cabin owner at the last minute. Mike’s parents had been a little nervous about him water skiing the first time in Texas, but when they finally got to watch him in action, they shed tears. “They could hardly believe they’d ever see their son doing something like that,” said Mike Brue, NDAD’s communications director. 

NDAD decided to offer adaptive water skiing every year. They also knew they would prefer warmer water for it than Devils Lake. Pulling bass out of that lake is paradise, but sitting in it is trying for those with certain physical challenges. Curiously, coal provided the fix. NDAD learned that Minnkota Power Cooperative’s Milton R. Young Station warms up a pocket of Nelson Lake until it feels like bathwater, so they moved the whole operation there. 

Thanks to Escape to the Lake, up to 48 children and adults with disabilities get to enjoy cutting frothy swaths into the crystal blue every year. Each participant rides a special “sit ski,” and is flanked on either side by a trained water skier to help them stay steady if needed. The adaptive sport is made safer still by two helpers following behind on a personal watercraft. Typically, one dozen volunteers are dedicated to taking a single participant on the water. 

Escape to the Lake is not therapeutic in the strictest sense, unless you count laughter as a form of medicine. It is also not just water skiing. Even participants who don’t ski can enjoy a pontoon boat ride, as well as a catered lunch while they watch the Aberdeen Aqua Addicts water ski team perform live.

Watching someone’s reaction to water skiing for the first time can be moving, NDAD’s Brue said. A few years ago, Escape to the Lake had an older teen take part who had been shaken as a young child: unable to walk, unable to grip anything, and blind. The teen couldn’t say what he felt, but his squeals of delight were enough to tell his adoptive parents that he was having a terrific time. Many people who have never water skied before will ask to go out for a second time.

Brue said Escape to the Lake may inspire many people with disabilities and their caregivers to ask themselves, ‘Hey, if we can do this, what else could we do?’ Since the event first started, sports like sled hockey and adaptive basketball have become more available than ever throughout the state.

Escape to the Lake is a demonstration of personal strength and willingness to overcome the odds. “People with disabilities are not seeking sympathy,” said Brue. “They want a chance to live their lives as fully as possible.” Brue also said NDAD appreciates all the support they have received for over a quarter century, including that from their on-site partners Aqua Addicts and Sporting Chance North Dakota.

If you or someone you know would like to join the fun on Nelson Lake, you are welcome. Escape to the Lake is open to all North Dakotans with a disability and will be held this year on Saturday, June 20th starting at 10am, with the performance ski show following lunch. For more information please visit ndad.org, or email Leslie Stastny at lstastny@ndad.org. 


By David Scheller