By Starrla Cray
DELANO, MN She’s known as “Nurse Mary” at Delano Elementary School, but Mary Zelko doesn’t stop caring for patients when students go home.
When the snow flies, Zelko hits the slopes at Powder Ridge in Kimball, where she serves on the volunteer ski patrol.
“It’s the best of both worlds skiing and first aid,” she said. “We make a definite difference; we save lives.”
Zelko was recently honored as the 2011-12 Outstanding Alpine Patroller, a national award bestowed to only one patroller of the 28,000-member organization each year.
Although this may be her most prestigious ski patrol award, it certainly isn’t her first. At Powder Ridge, Zelko was named patroller of the year in 2008-09, and was selected as instructor of the year for two consecutive seasons, from 2010 to 2012. In March 2010, Zelko was also recognized for assisting a fellow patroller who was having a heart attack.
“The experience I gain as a ski patrol member is helpful for my job as a nurse,” Zelko said. “It helps prepare me for anything that happens at school.”
Family of skiers
Flying down a snow-covered hill comes naturally for Zelko, who started skiing in her hometown of Mankato at age 3 or 4.
“It’s something you can do all your life, and you can do it as a family,” she said. “It’s good exercise, too.”
Zelko’s three daughters are also avid skiers. Two of them are instructors, and the youngest will be certified soon.
Even Zelko’s 3-year-old grandson is learning to ski.
“The young and old do it together,” Zelko said. “People in their 70s and 80s are out there.”
As a ski patrol member, Zelko gets a free season pass each winter, and her family only pays $50. She also receives complimentary passes, which she uses to take students skiing who might not be able to afford it otherwise.
Another benefit of ski patrol is the camaraderie. During the off-season, the Powder Ridge group plays volleyball and goes kayaking.
“We really become like a big family,” Zelko said.
On a typical winter day, four to six patrollers are on duty at any given time. They’re the first ones on the slopes, and the last ones off.
“At night we sweep the hill, going back and forth, to make sure no one’s still on it,” Zelko said.
Zelko serves as assistant patrol director, outdoor emergency care instructor, a CPR instructor, and a toboggan instructor, donating more than 400 hours of training each ski season.
“It’s such a short season December though March that you have to make the most of it,” she said.
Classes to become a ski patroller are offered each fall. Training is open to competent skiers ages 16 and older. Previous medical training is not required.
“We teach them everything they need to know,” Zelko said.
To learn more about becoming a ski patroller, contact Zelko at (763) 898-2069 or go to http://powderridge.com/