Disabled discover `anything’s possible’ at Snowmass clinic | AspenTimes.com
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Disabled discover `anything’s possible’ at Snowmass clinic

Jennifer Davoren

Todd Russell, a substitute teacher from Houston, missed warm Texas temperatures Thursday afternoon as he attempted scuba diving for the first time.

The pool at the Silvertree Hotel was heated to 90 degrees, but a steady snowfall cooled the air as Russell was helped into a wet suit and into the water.

After some initial shivering, however, Russell was able to forget about the weather.

“It was the most amazing experience. I can’t think of any words to describe it,” he said.

The question for Russell, a quadriplegic for almost nine years, wasn’t whether he would be able to make the dive – it was when. The line for lessons was long, and Russell just had to wait for his turn with an instructor from the Mesa County Rescue Team.

“All they had to say was `You have the opportunity,'” he said.

Russell was one of over 350 men and women who came to Snowmass this week for the National Disabled Veterans Winter Sports Clinic, a five-day event open to all disabled military veterans. Sponsored by the Department of Veteran Affairs and Disabled American Veterans, the event invited vets to try basketball, hockey, rock climbing, scuba diving, snowmobiling and, of course, all types of skiing – cross country, downhill and nordic.

A fan of more aggressive sports, Mike Horta wasn’t sure what to expect when friends finally convinced him to try the clinic four years ago. The California native said he was quickly won over, however, as he tried winter sports for the first time.

Horta slid down Snowmass easily Thursday afternoon, thanks to a woman he calls one of the best instructors on the mountain. His ride took around 45 minutes as he navigated a blue run with the use of a specially designed chair and arm braces.

“The trick is finding the center of balance with your ski,” Horta said of his sliding chair.

Turning is a little harder, as the braces guide skiers to the left or right as they race downhill.

“When you make your turns, you have to lean forward, like you’re opening a door,” Horta said.

The challenges veterans face each day as they try a new clinic activity is the most rewarding part of the week, Horta said.

“To the new vets, it’s a big challenge, but it’s another step forward,” he said. “I didn’t think I could do it, but then I came down the mountain the first time.”

Terry McGovern, a resident of Long Island, N.Y., and member of the U.S. Disabled Swim Team, serves as a ski instructor for disabled clients when not competing in professional swimming competitions. His 10-12 years with the sports clinic have introduced him to many enthusiastic participants, many of whom travel from all over the country with their own money in order to make it to Colorado for the event.

“You love it so much you keep doing it until you can’t anymore,” he said, watching exhausted skiers trickle into the Silvertree after a full day on the slopes.

His favorite participants, he said, are those who have just discovered the clinic.

“I love seeing the first-timers and watching them get hooked,” he said. “You never come once. You always have to come back again.”

Russell isn’t looking forward to the end of clinic activities but can’t wait to host a presentation at his school in Houston.

“Once I get back and they see the video of me scuba diving in the snow, they’d better never tell me, `I can’t do this,'” he said. “I just proved to them that anything’s possible.”

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