Bringing health care out of the hospital and onto the slopes

Winter sports clinic supports physical, mental well-being for disabled veterans

Medals from previous iterations of the National Disabled Veterans Winter Sports Clinic hang on the wall of an equipment trailer at Snowmass Ski Area on Tuesday, March 29, 2022.
Kaya Williams/The Snowmass Sun

In a way, the National Disabled Veterans Winter Sports Clinic in Snowmass Village is a form of health care as much as an opportunity for outdoor recreation.

The event is co-produced by the Department of Veterans Affairs and the Disabled American Veterans organization, with support from Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Centers across the country and a wide range of sponsors, donors, volunteers and organizations.

“What’s exciting about this job is we get to take health care outside the hospital and into the community, and what’s better than Snowmass here, right?” said Leif Nelson, the director of national veterans sports programs and special events for the Department of Veterans Affairs. “Most people, when they walk outside their door, they don’t see this.”

Gallery caption: Photos from the 2022 National Disabled Veterans Winter Sports Clinic

For the 130 veterans and nearly 300 volunteers in town through Friday, ‘this’ is the thousands of skiable acres at Snowmass Ski Area, plus nearby cross-country trails and winter sports facilities for activities like curling and sled hockey.

When participants gathered for opening ceremonies on Sunday, it was a balmy spring day; by the time most of them hit the slopes early in the week, their surroundings were covered in a dusting of snow that by Wednesday morning totaled six inches of fresh. The immersion in the outdoors is part of the merit of the winter sports clinic and in adaptive sports at large, Nelson said.

“It’s the environment, right? What’s great about adaptive sports is the physical benefits, and then there’s also the benefits of mental health as well,” Nelson said. “The impact of nature, and overwhelmingly impressively beautiful nature like we have here, it’s a great start to what’s going to follow.”

That mental health component is core to the experience of the clinic in any year; all the more so after two years of isolation from the COVID-19 pandemic, Nelson said.

“It’s been a challenge for everybody, and I think something that it’s worth noting is, individuals living with disabilities like our veterans, it’s even more challenging, and we know so many of our veterans are living with mental health challenges,” Nelson said. “Becoming more isolated isn’t going to help that, so that’s why we’re so excited to be back here in Snowmass, to get folks back out flying down the mountain.”

That skiing experience can be “liberating,” according to participants, and convening with so many fellow veterans in one place is bound to yield plenty of camaraderie.

It’s the combination of adaptive sports and collective support that draws some veterans back year after year. And according to Andy Marshall, the 2021-22 national commander for Disabled American Veterans, it can have a lasting and positive impact for veterans’ well-being.

“Not only getting these guys and gals out and doing things that they probably never thought they could do physically, but also mentally, you know,” said Marshall, who serves as a spokesperson for the Disabled American Veterans in a one-year term. “They can meld socially with elder people who are in the same condition they are — missing legs, missing arms, visually impaired, or orthopedic (injuries), or paralyzed, and you get them out there. … (It’s) not only helping your physical stamina but giving that mental health stability.”

Jason Strickland, who helms communications from the Department of Veterans Affairs Rocky Mountain Network, said that for participants, the clinic “is a critical part of their rehabilitation. … A critical part of their whole health recovery.”

Anyone could do physical therapy in a doctor’s office somewhere, but skiing also creates a space in which veterans can adapt mentally to living with disabilities.

“It shows them that there are opportunities that they didn’t know they had,” Strickland said.

An enormous team of volunteers helps make that happen, Marshall noted. Nearly 300 are onsite this year, from coast to coast and even across borders and oceans too; Marshall said that some instructors come from Canada and Australia, too.

“That’s amazing that they would donate their time to come, not only from all across the country but from another country to help disabled veterans adapt and do things that they probably never thought they could do in their life.”