When you hear the words “adaptive skiing” what’s the first thing that comes to your mind? Be honest. Is it visions of disabled people strapped into some contraption holding on to their ski instructors for dear life as they slowly glide down a bunny slope? Or is it an image of a person doing a backflip in a mono ski? Not only are adaptive skiers and riders doing backflips, but some are competing along side “able bodied” competitors in national competitions, and winning!
For the second year in a row I was honored to be a snowboard coach to a group of our nation’s wounded veterans at the 2015 AIG Winter Summit in Stowe VT. Disabled Sports USA’s Warfighter Sports program is the beneficiary of the annual event which gives disabled vets the opportunity to train with some of the finest snowboard, ski and mono ski coaches in the world. The culmination of the Winter Summit is an opportunity for all participants to compete in a slalom race down one of the toughest slopes on the mountain.
On Sunday March 15, 2015, warriors and their gear from all over the country arrived at the Boston Logan airport and were shuttled to Stowe Mountain by AIG executives. These were not gopher employees. These were some of the highest ranking corporate executives in the AIG company who volunteered their time and efforts to provide safe transport for our group. The 3.5 hour drive was a great opportunity for the vets and the execs to develop up close and personal relationships and show appreciation for the contributions that each has provided to the program. These brave young men and women were all wounded in combat in either Iraq or Afghanistan and live with some sort of a disability including amputations, traumatic brain disorders (TBI), post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and paralysis. For the second year the special honored guest was Steve Woolfenden, a Boston Marathon bombing survivor and lower leg amputee. Steve is an accomplished adaptive skier.
Monday morning started with a 7:30am breakfast, a brief meeting about the day’s schedule, and then a 9:15am departure for the 5 van convoy headed to the mountain, which was about 15 minutes away. By 10:30am we were all geared up and ready for the first day of training. The weather was clear, cold and icy with temps in the low 20’s. Typical northeast winter weather that I learned to snowboard in. Extra layers and face protection were a must. After 2 warm up runs on one of the easier trails, the group decision was to head further up the mountain to tackle some of the steeper more challenging terrain. This first day of the Summit gives the warriors an opportunity to get used to the conditions and the coaches a chance to assess the skill levels of each participant, address any noticeable concerns and offer advice as they see fit. Most of the veterans are experienced, having participated in various adaptive programs out in Colorado’s softer more forgiving powder snow. Here in the northeast we have lots of ice and hard packed snow. Much more difficult conditions. If you can ride or ski in the northeast you can do it anywhere else in the world! During my assessment of the group I immediately noticed one vet who would need a little extra attention with his set up.
Retired Army Sgt. Matthew Melancon is a bilateral below the knee amputee as a result of complications from an IED (Improvised Explosive Device) explosion during his tour in Afghanistan. Matt aspired to ride a snowboard after his amputation but didn’t think that it would be possible given his condition. I too had the same concerns initially before I learned as a bilateral below knee amputee. I told Matt that he was more than capable to learn to ride and that if I could do it, so could he. With the proper instruction, and a lot of work, Sgt. Melancon snowboarded! It took a while to get his prosthetic legs properly aligned to where he felt comfortable controlling the board, but the end results were amazing. He looked like a natural and he was so excited to start a new journey into the world of adaptive snowboarding.
Another wounded vet that I got a chance to coach was US Marine Cpl. Todd Boucher. Todd is a single leg below the knee amputee from New York City who is in his first year of snowboarding. He is also a ride guide and instructor with the IMBA International Mountain Biking Association. Todd is very active and wears a College Park Soleus Tactical foot for walking as well as competition. He says it gives him the dynamic foot response that he needs to stay in the game. I couldn’t agree with him more as I wear my Soleus feet for all of my high energy activities. The feet give me so much return for my investment in terms of energy. What I put in, they give back, which is a huge benefit to walking or sports. Take it from me, this is one bad ass foot!
Lance Corporal Colton Carlson, USMC is another bilateral amputee snowboarder that I had the pleasure of working with at the AIG event. I previously worked with him at Ski Spectacular, another Disabled Sports USA event in Breckenridge CO. Colton’s lost his his right leg below the knee and his left leg above the knee after he stepped on a pressure bomb during his tour in Afghanistan. In true American hero fashion, after the explosion he was worried about his fellow team members more than himself. “Are you guys alright” he shouted. He shared his inspirational story during the awards presentation of the Winter Summit. In February 2015, Colton was invited by DSUSA’s Warfighter Sports Team to participate in an epic climb of Aconcagua, a nearly 23,000′ mountain in the Andes of Argentina South America. The purpose of the climb was to inspire and motivate fellow wounded warriors and others who are facing the challenge of rehabilitation after a severe injury, to realize that they can lead active fulfilling lives with their disabilities. The long arduous step by step process of rehabilitation is very similar to climbing mountains. 4 wounded warriors attempted the climb accompanied by a doctor from Walter Reed National Medical Center and a professional guide. During the arduous 17 day climb, Colton was the only one to reach the summit! An amazing feat for anyone but keep in mind, Colton is a bilateral amputee who expends 200% more energy than an able bodied person to perform such a task. He is a perfect example of the absolutely incredible things that human beings are capable of. A true inspiration. By the way, Colton wears College Park Soleus Tactical feet as well. It’s great to meet fellow amputees who share the same incredible equipment and who are making incredible accomplishments using them.
By Wednesday everyone was ready for the first of two days of racing. Boards had been adjusted and tuned and skis had been waxed and sharpened. It was time to run gates. The course would prove to be one of the most challenging for the competitors as conditions were cold and extremely icy. Many of the competitors lost control on the icy course and had slower than desired times. Adjustments had to be made not only to the equipment but also to the mental preparation for Thursday’s race if you expected to take home a trophy. Low elapsed time of 28 seconds for the snowboarders was laid down by my coaching assistant Ben Berberich out of Winter Park Colorado’s National Sports Center For The Disabled. One of many great adaptive training programs offered across the country. Ben showed all of the snowboard competitors what the course would hold even though he is an able bodied rider. One thing I’ve learned about myself is that if I surround myself with people who are performing at a higher level than I am, it raises my bar of expectations for myself. I strive to get better. If I constantly stay around mediocre people than mediocrity is what I will experience in life. Human beings need to be constantly pushed and or challenged in order to realize their true potential and reach new heights. How do you know if you have what it takes unless you give it all that you’ve got?
Thursday’s weather at Stowe was a bit warmer and the conditions on the mountain were more forgiving for the competitors. Overall for the Warfighter Sports group, Thursday saw much more improved times as everyone made it down the course without a hitch. The highlight of the event for me was watching Sgt. Melancon, the bilateral below knee amputee snowboarder complete the course without a single fall or missed gate! What an accomplishment for a guy who is brand new to adaptive snowboarding. Besides myself there aren’t many bilateral amputees who think they can ride a snowboard, let alone race one. That’s why it’s so important for me to continue to showcase not only my talents but the talents of other disabled individuals who are doing incredible things in life and who are not letting their disability define who they are. So what that I have prosthetic legs. So what that I have to do things differently than able bodied people. It doesn’t make me any less of a human being or any less capable of accomplishing goals. I may have to work a little harder that’s all. My life’s mission is to change the stereotype of disabled people all around the world. How will I accomplish that? By believing in myself and my abilities and living my life to the full until it overflows! God blessed me with all that I am. What I am is God’s gift to humanity. What I become is my gift to God!
Following the competition there is an evening dinner and awards ceremony that’s held in the main lodge at Stowe. Olympic Gold medalist Johnny Moseley was the keynote speaker and inspired us all with his amazing life story of determination.
The saying “time flies when you’re having fun” was no exception at the 2015 AIG Winter Summit as Friday arrived and all of the competitors and coaches begin departing the beautiful town of Stowe VT for the drive back to Boston. New friendships had been made and existing ones strengthened. There is an almost miraculous healing power in sports. As you can imagine for anyone who has gone through a traumatic life changing injury, many of our nation’s heros harbor a lot of anger and post traumatic stress. Some struggle with “why did this happen to me” while others accept and move on. Thanks to programs like Disabled Sports USA’s Warfighter Sports, these young men and women have a chance to get their life back. Sliding down the side of a mountain is such a liberating experience. It gives you freedom, it gives you independence and a renewed confidence in yourself that helps you heal mentally, physically, emotionally and psychologically. I know for myself I’m just so proud to have been a part of such a life changing event. It’s an honor for me to be able to help people who have given so much of themselves to insure the safety of my family and my country. Someone once told me that the amazing part about being an adaptive instructor is what you can give to your students. I said it’s not what I can give to my students but what my students give to me! The amazing accomplishments by these disabled veterans were so inspiring until I feel that I have no limits in my life. There is nothing that can stop me from achieving my goals. I have no excuses! Human beings are capable of some amazing things. No matter what your situation in life, there is always a way. What’s your excuse?