Disabled veterans find ‘liberating’ experience on skis
Annual winter sports clinic brings hundreds together for connection and freedom on the slopes of Snowmass
After a two-year hiatus, disabled veterans, adaptive sports instructors and volunteers across the country are back on the slopes at Snowmass for the National Disabled Veterans Winter Sports clinic this week — “back with a vengeance,” as instructor Music Pace joked.
Pace, who hails from Grand Junction, is in his 12th year with the clinic, and his enthusiasm hasn’t waned with repetition. Pace was so excited for this year’s clinic that he couldn’t fall asleep the night before programming kicked off; he was up until 3 a.m., he said.
On Tuesday morning, he was with veteran Wayne Ross, a quadriplegic who uses a sit-ski to get down the mountain.
Ross, who lives in Scituate, Massachusetts, is likewise hooked on the clinic; this is his 21st year coming to Snowmass, he said while waiting for an equipment transfer at “the docks” near the Snowmass Mall. (The spot for equipment loading and adjustments is aptly named for its resemblance to a boat marina; participants can slide up on the snow into slips surrounded by a wood platform.)
Ross sees the entire week of programming as a cake, and every bite is delicious, he said. The people here are “one of the big reasons” he keeps returning — though the winter sports activities are pretty good, too.
“The skiing is like the icing on the cake,” he said. The experience, he said, feels “liberating.”
Veteran Josh Sharp, who was one slip over at the docks waiting for an equipment adjustment on his sit-ski, shared the sentiment.
“It’s always great to be able to leave your wheelchair behind and explore the mountain,” the Pensacola resident said. He’s been skiing for 23 years and is on his 13th go-around at the clinic. And like Ross, he also has an appreciation for the people who make the clinic so special.
“Just having meals with the fellow veterans and the camaraderie that we have. … That’s not something you would get at any other ski event,” Sharp said.
Or almost any other event, for that matter. The clinic usually draws more than 400 veterans to Snowmass; with this year’s COVID-19 protocols, there were 141 registrants and about 130 showed up, according to Jason Strickland, who runs communications for the Department of Veterans Affairs Rocky Mountain Network.
(The VA and the organization Disabled American Veterans co-produce the event and many other sponsors and groups are involved in what Strickland called a “cooperative effort.”)
Veteran Ed Riding, a blind skier who hit the slopes with longtime instructor-guides Randy Benson and Ron Olson, said that this level of interaction with so many other veterans in one place isn’t something he’s found anywhere else.
Riding’s debut clinic — he calls it his “never-never” year— was a decade ago; this year marks his fifth time at Snowmass for the clinic and he now skis regularly at the mountains closer to where he lives in Salt Lake City.
“It’s the friendships more than anything” that keep him returning to the clinic, he said. It’s a chance to “meet old friends” and to “hear stories and reminisce,” he said.
Riding, now closing in on his 70th birthday, has been out of the service for a while. Here, among his fellow veterans, “it brings back some memories,” he said.
The appreciation likewise extends to the volunteers and other supporters who ensure that the clinic can keep happening year after year. Nearly 300 volunteers are onsite this year, Strickland said, and there are even more when attendance is up in the 400s, as organizers aim for a ratio of three support crew members for every one veteran participant.
“It’s a blessing to have such an embracing community and be so well taken care of,” said Brenden Doyle, of Clovis, California, who is attending his first winter sports clinic this year.
It goes both ways, according to instructors like Jon Sattler, who was skiing with Doyle on Tuesday. Sattler, who lives in Greenville, South Carolina, estimated he’s been to about eight clinics over the years, and every time, the clinic is “one of the best — if not the best — thing I do all winter,” he said.
Sattler acknowledged that there are some logistical stressors in arranging the time to come out for a week and participate in the clinic, and there can be challenging lessons sometimes, too. But it is also an immensely rewarding experience.
“As soon as you get here it just hits you: This is where I need to be,” he said.
And for Pace, who was working with Wayne Ross on Tuesday morning, it’s a way of giving back.
“For all the freedoms they’ve given me and my family, it’s the least I can do,” Pace said.
The clinic experience means freedom for participants, too, they said.
On a ride up the Village Express chairlift Tuesday, Doyle claimed he “got bit by the bug” of skiing two months ago at China Peak Mountain Resort in California and has already bought his season pass for next year; two years after he was paralyzed in a skydiving accident, skiing allows him to “be on a level playing field” on the mountain. Like his fellow veteran Ross up at the docks, Doyle had exactly one word in mind to describe the experience of cruising down the mountain on skis: “Liberating.”
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