Challenge Aspen athlete Neil Duncan takes injury, opportunity in stride
December 25, 2007
ASPEN Neil Duncan insists he is one of the fortunate ones. In the last two years alone, the 24-year-old Minnesota native has traveled the world. He’s rafted the Grand Canyon, skied in the Italian Dolomites, gone halibut fishing off the coast of Alaska and completed the New York City Marathon. He even jogged with President Bush on the White House’s south lawn.”Every single time I do something amazing, I think about where I could be and what I could be doing,” Duncan says. “Those are the kind of experiences that allow me to honestly say I’d never change a thing.”Duncan is one of the newest skiers on Challenge Aspen’s competition team. Since moving to the valley in October, he has been working tirelessly in the gym and on the hill with one goal in mind: To make the U.S. Paralympic Team. He’s hoping to represent his country in the 2010 Paralympic Games in Vancouver, British Columbia. Duncan admits it’s an ambitious objective. But so was learning to run again, spending every night for weeks propped up against the handrail in a hotel hallway, then biting the carpet in pain after taking yet another fall.So was finding the strength to persevere when circumstances seemed desolate. So was surviving when it looked as though, in an instant, life had been taken away.”I should’ve died, there’s no question about it,” Duncan says matter-of-factly. “I was almost done. I was very close to done, but I fought for it.”
Duncan’s story doesn’t begin here in Aspen at the start of his latest pursuit. It doesn’t begin on the shores of Lake Superior in Minnesota, where he grew up, or on the state’s modest slopes, where he first fell in love with skiing. It doesn’t begin in a Georgia bowling alley where, in early 2003, he and fellow army infantryman watched a television broadcast declaring the beginning of the war in Iraq.No, Duncan’s story begins Dec. 5, 2005, in a dried-out creek bed in a remote mountainous region of Afghanistan. It was there that everything changed.He and his platoon had just completed their third and final night monitoring for insurgent activity on a nearby mountain top. As the sun began to stretch its rays across the untamed landscape, they packed up their three trucks and headed back to camp.Duncan, the team leader, was sitting in the right passenger’s seat of the final truck in the convoy. He was adjacent to the driver and in front of a gunner occupying the back row when his truck rolled over a land mine.The mine exploded directly underneath Duncan. The force of the blow propelled the then 22-year-old forward, shattering his jaw and knocking out 10 of his bottom teeth.But that was not the major concern. That became clear as the driver, who suffered only minor burns to his face, rifled through his lifesaver bag to find a tourniquet to wrap around Duncan’s maimed legs. “Because of the head trauma, I was delirious and remember very little,” Duncan says. “I remember shadows and things like that, but no vivid memories. If you ask me, I’d say I was unconscious.”He’d later learn that a Blackhawk helicopter picked him up, transported him first to a nearby medical facility then, once he was stabilized, to a military hospital in Kandahar.Duncan left Kandahar without his legs – his right limb was amputated above the knee and his left below the knee.He was then flown to Landstuhl, Germany. Five days after the ordeal, Duncan experienced his first conscious memory soon after arriving at Washington’s Walter Reed Army Medical Center.It was here that he, still in a drug-induced fog, woke up in the intensive care unit to find his head wrapped in an external fixator. Four screws stabilized his jaw, and his mouth was wired shut.
A feeding tube snaked through his nose and into his stomach. Oxygen flowed through a hole in his trachea. His right arm was cast from his fingertips to his shoulder, and scores of IVs extended from both arms like tentacles.His legs were gone.”I knew something was going on, but I didn’t know the extent of it until that moment,” Duncan remembers. “It was a real difficult awakening. You can imagine it messes with you.”For two months, Duncan was immobilized. As Christmas and New Year’s passed, he struggled through the pain. The hallucinations, the surgeries – nearly 60 in all – took a toll. He couldn’t comprehend the difference between dream and reality. He still remembers the nightmares. He used to glance out his door and into a dark hallway and see an operating room where a patient had just died.”I’m not sure if I communicated it, I’m sure I didn’t, but in my mind I was telling my family to go away,” Duncan says. “I didn’t want them to see that happen to me.” For two months, he waged this battle. For two months, Duncan dealt with panic and paranoia so intense that it once prompted him to yank the feeding tube from his nose and use his good hand to tug at the IVs.But Duncan has no conscious memory of being confused about his plight. He never experienced a profound mental struggle, a fact he attributes to his recent success.Instead, Duncan embraced the situation head-on. After all, he knows no other way.”I’m as determined as they get,” Duncan says. “Some call it hard-headed. … It got me this far, so it can’t be that bad.”While frustration was prevalent, Duncan says he’s never once been bitter. He’s never experienced regret.
He chose to accept the circumstances. He chose to push forward.In February 2006, two months after Afghanistan, Duncan was first fitted for prosthetics. It was then, as he stood writhing in pain while gripping two parallel bars, that reality sunk in.”You lose your legs, then spend two months being wired up and all this shit, then you finally get your legs and you have great expectations,” Duncan says. “It was the biggest disappointment I had at that point probably in my whole life. … I sat back down, took them off. That’s where it all started.”The long road back was under way. And with his therapist, Kyla, by his side, Duncan took one agonizing step at a time.”[Kyla] asked me, ‘Where do you want to go with this whole rehab thing, I’ll go wherever you want to go,'” Duncan says. “I told her I just wanted to do normal stuff. I didn’t want to slow people down if I was walking in a group. I didn’t want to have people help me carry stuff. I wanted to be able to walk out to the car.”I wanted my life back.”Just two weeks after getting his legs, Duncan was invited to go target shooting in North Carolina. He told Kyla he didn’t want to use his wheelchair to get on the planeSure enough, Duncan hobbled through the aisle on crutches.”That was huge for me,” he remembers. “I just didn’t think about where I would be in six months or two years, I was just thinking about today. I was happy with that.” One month later, Duncan was back on the snow. He was approached by a representative of the Wounded Warriors Project, a group dedicated to assisting service members in their transition into civilian life. The man, who heard Duncan used to ski, invited him to Waterville Valley in New Hampshire.Duncan, who originally enlisted as an airborne paratrooper, took the leap. Three and a half months after being injured, he was “on this ice-cold mountain trying to fit myself into a monoski” for the first time.
“They took me on the bunny hill, pushed me down. I would try to turn and would fall over,” Duncan says. “We did that for about three hours. I was in so much pain that I had to call it.”Duncan was determined, not disheartened. In the months that followed, he continued aggressive therapy and even took a trip to Italy to surprise some of his platoon mates.He also was intent on learning to run. Kyla said he wasn’t ready, so Duncan spent each night after therapy working through the pain in his hotel hallway. Kyla must have noticed the rug burns on his elbows. When Kyla finally agreed to take Duncan to the track, a smile covered his face as he took off running.It was June.In December 2006, Duncan traveled to Breckenridge for the Ski Spectacular, the nation’s largest winter sports festivity for people with disabilities, and was eager to give monoskiing another try. He surprised himself with the progress he made in just one week.”I was out there from the first lift until the end; I was intense on the whole thing,” Duncan remembers. “I saw some guys out there shredding, and it really motivated me to learn. … I wasn’t skiing great by any means, but I progressed in a way I never could’ve imagined.”It was in Breckenridge that Duncan met Challenge Aspen managing program director Sarah Williams, who invited him to a monoski camp in Aspen in January.On his subsequent trip to Colorado, Duncan met director of skiing Kevin Jardine. The two exchanged contact information and promised to stay in touch.A few months later, Duncan’s phone rang.”I went back to D.C. and was trying to make a life for myself there,” he says. “I got into the normal grind. I felt like that was the normal progression of things. I didn’t really like it. Kevin called at the perfect time. He told me, ‘I’d like you to come to Aspen and train this winter. We’re going to Chile in September, and I’d like you to come on that trip, too.’
“I said, ‘Sure, you got me. Yes, yes and yes.'”Duncan packed his bags, tied up some loose ends, then moved to Minnesota for a few weeks in early September. Then, with little more than a coat, some ski pants and gloves, he met Jardine at the airport.It didn’t take Duncan long to realize he had found his calling. Soon after returning to the states, he packed up his car and headed west.The new Basalt resident has been on the snow nearly seven days each week ever since. And now, he is ready to clear his latest hurdle.”I want to go all the way up, I want to do whatever I need to do,” Duncan said. “If that means skiing seven days a week or being in the gym or watching videos, I’ll do whatever I need to make it on the U.S. team.”It’s a predictable response for a man who cheated death and is now chasing a dream.Little more than two weeks ago, Duncan celebrated the two-year anniversary of his “Alive Day.” He took a moment to look back, to ponder his journey and to mull his future.”I learned so much in the last two years – I hope to God I never learn as much as I did the last two years in that short of time,” Duncan says. “It’s been brutal going through this, but now I feel like I’m prepared for anything. I’m proud of myself, and I’m very lucky.”I’ve had some hard times, but I wouldn’t change a thing. Not today, not yesterday.”When Duncan talks about how far he’s come at such a young age, he points to July. He still remembers sweating in his suit and tie as he sat, waiting outside the Oval Office. He remembers joking with his tour guide about going to see the White House swimming pool.He remembers the door opening and, with Kyla at his side once more, exchanging handshakes with the president.
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After they conversed, and as Duncan was preparing to leave to get changed for the run, Kyla nudged him in the side.”Tell him about the pool,” she said.”Mr. President, I’d like to check out the pool,” Duncan said. Bush paused for a moment, then responded:”I don’t see that as a problem.”The group congregated on the south lawn soon after. They jogged around the perimeter and stopped to address the press corps. Then Duncan, Kyla and the president strolled the grounds.Duncan felt a tug at his shoulder. Bush guided him down an unassuming cobblestone path, ducking under overgrown trees and around bushes as they went. Before long, they came upon an outdoor pool.”He sits down at the table, kicks his legs up and we sit there and talk for an hour and a half,” Duncan remembers. “It wasn’t him talking to us. It wasn’t us talking to him. We told stories … we talked about everything you could possibly talk about. … It was surreal.”After the candid conversation, the president excused himself. A moment later, Duncan stood up, took off his shirt and ambled over to the pool edge.He jumped in. firstname.lastname@example.org