All too often I am reminded of how fortunate I am to be surrounded by people who believed in my will and drive to overcome the challenge of having my leg amputated. Of the 50 million plus Americans living with a physical disability, all too many have lost or are losing hope in their ability to overcome the obstacles that lie in their path. Thus, I jump at the opportunity to use my experience and passions to help others overcome their own challenges.
For the last 23 years, the Hartford Ski Spectacular has reopened the world to individuals with physical disabilities. For the past two years I have had the honor of being involved with this wonderful event held at the Breckenridge Ski Resort in Colorado. The Hartford Ski Spectacular is the largest event of its kind for individuals with a physical disability. With over 800 participants, including approximately 150 disabled veterans, many are learning to ski for the first time. My involvement in this experience was as a mentor, an advocate and a living example of what life after a disabling event can be. I spent the majority of my time on the slopes skiing with participants helping to provide a constant source of encouragement and faith in each person’s ability to face their fears. What I experienced moved me in ways that are hard to put into words.
This years’ event took place on December 5-12th. Day One started by wadding through the sea of wheelchairs and prosthetic limbs, as I shuffled my way along the lift line. The look on most of the participants face was one of fear, doubt and anxiety. This was to be expected as many of these individuals were about to tackle a sport that numerous able-bodied individuals view as too risky or difficult. The camaraderie and sudden sense of belonging that comes from being surrounded by your peers was overwhelming and fueled each person to embrace the opportunity to learn to slide down the mountain. Supported by the nation’s finest adaptive ski instructors, each participant was fitted to their adaptive ski equipment and soon was being whisked away on the chairlift. Riding the lift to 11,000 plus feet at the top of the mountain marked their first step in embracing life’s potential. Waiting at the top of the mountain and looking down the steep slopes, they were facing far more than the challenge of getting back to the base area. They were opening a chest of lost dreams, missed opportunities and hopelessness. Over time though, each would shove off under shaky arms/legs to pursue a new life without limitations.
Seven days later, as I made my way onto the chairlift, wheelchairs, arms and legs lay haphazardly about the base area. Their owners had cast off their shackles in favor of the rush of wind in their face as they bombed down the ski hill, smiling from ear to ear. Long gone was the doubt and fear…now the faces reflected the excitement that comes from successfully overcoming challenges, and the internal optimism of someone excited for what the future holds.
Nothing captured the moment better than the conversation of three teens I overheard while riding a lift on the final day. One of the young men watching the adaptive skiers coming down the slope made the comment, “Man there sure is a lot of handicapped people up here today.” To which his friend said, “Dude, some guy on the last run flew past me with one leg and I couldn’t catch him.” The third kid quickly chimed in, “Yeah, I saw that guy too, he was a ripping skier…I didn’t think that was possible!”
It amazes me how easily we allow a physical characteristic to manifest itself into a measure of our ability or inability to pursue dreams and aspirations in life. I have met thousands of physically disabled people over the past five years, and all too often I find their loss of hope based on nothing more than what can be observed in the mirror. For 23 years the Ski Spectacular has been the catalyst to giving thousands of individuals their lives back; shattering the corrupted image in the mirror and replacing it with a reflection of the will power and drive that lives in all of us. What I experienced on the slopes of Breckenridge was the rebirth of individual’s and as each emerged it was their display of ability that in turn was opening the eyes of the world.
Additional Story: http://usparalympics.org/news/2010/12/10/dsusa-s-the-hartford-ski-spectacular-changing-lives/39951