SNOWMASS VILLAGE - For the past 12 years, the National Disabled Veterans Winter Sports Clinic has been coming to Snowmass Village. More than one resident has said the disabled veterans are some of their favorite visitors because of their positive attitudes, courtesy and incredible stories.
One such story belongs to John Register, of Colorado Springs. Register served in the U.S. Army for six years, including a deployment in the Gulf War. He wasn't injured during his military career but lost his left leg pursuing another goal: to represent the U.S. as a 400-meter hurdler in the 1996 Olympic Games.
"I was a world-class hurdler," Register said. "Since then, I've used sport as a tool."
The former University of Arkansas athlete started swimming for rehabilitation and wound up going to Atlanta in 1996 after all, swimming for the U.S. Paralympic Team. He also went on to compete in track-and-field events on artificial legs.
"It was natural to do that," he said. "These things (such as the Winter Sports Clinic) show you: You may have lost a limb; you can get back to doing that."
Register has participated in the Winter Sports Clinic since 2004. An associate director on the U.S. Olympic Committee, Register started attending because he was looking for ways to increase programming for veterans. He also helps people who want to go to the Olympics reach that goal.
"Some people, they want to jam all the way to Olympic sports," he said. "Some just want to get back out with (their) family, and they didn't even realize that was possible."
There is a mindset about disabilities that needs to be overcome, Register said. People with disabilities are getting out and doing activities such as skiing.
"I think that's what happens on the mountainside," he said. "It widens people's perceptions."
Devora Exline, a Navy veteran from Escondido, Calif., expanded her own perceptions during her first time at the clinic.
"The best thing was actually getting on the slopes and learning how to do a new sport," Exline said. "It was great learning that I can still have fun ... doing what able-bodied people can."
Exline, who served in the Navy for almost 26 years, has been diagnosed with an autoimmune disorder that causes her to experience pain constantly. She said it was beneficial to be in an environment where people look beyond her disorder.
"Even the locals are like, 'Oh, cool, you're actually up there skiing on the mountain,'" Exline said.
Laura Pearson, of Long Beach, Calif., discovered a similar thing four years ago when she first came to the clinic. Pearson has a disorder similar to multiple sclerosis that also gives her pain much of the time. Pearson skied the last day of her first Winter Sports Clinic, and she said it changed her life.
"It made me realize I could live," Pearson said. "I had kind of given up. ... (Now) I'm engaged in life, and it helped me do that."
After that first experience with the clinic, Pearson started working to get out of the wheelchair. She's walking now, and beyond that, she's training for a half-marathon.
"You can kind of commiserate a little bit" with the other disable veterans, she said. "But also you learn how to live better."
Scott Riley, of Carbondale, was operating the NASTAR course on Snowmass ski area last week. He said meeting veterans during the clinic every year is "eye-opening."
"And they're really thankful," he said. "They're the most appreciative, most thankful group we get all year."