How skiing turned a veteran’s life around

Scott Condon
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO, Colorado
Jessica Smith/U.S. Olympic Committee

SNOWMASS – As the ski season winds down, it’s easy to overlook a winter-sports clinic that’s bringing nearly 400 disabled military veterans to the slopes of Snowmass. But as Jon Lujan can attest, the event transforms lives.

Lujan says skiing in Snowmass five years ago saved his life. He said he was in a two-year “downward spiral” at the time. The former Marine was injured in 2003, when the truck he was riding in, as part of a convoy heading from Kuwait to Iraq, crashed. Lujan went airborne and ruptured two disks in his back upon landing. For the next two years he experienced pain so piercing that not even morphine could mask it.

After trying all sorts of treatments unsuccessfully, he underwent surgery in 2005, but something went horribly wrong. His spinal cord was “nicked.” He woke up paralyzed in both legs. He spent the next year learning how to cope with his physical challenge. He advanced from being limited to a wheelchair to using a walker. Eventually he was able to walk with the aid of braces,which he still uses. The paralysis evolved from affecting both of his legs from waist down to affecting both legs from the knees down plus the outside of his right thigh. He has feeling in only a portion of one foot the size of a quarter.

“Other than that, it’s just like two bricks,” Lujan said.

He was medically retired from the Marine Corps and returned to Colorado in 2006, more than a year after the surgery. He was down on his luck.

“I was chasing my demons and drinking a lot,” Lujan said.

He didn’t deal effectively with his family and friends because of his temper. A relationship with a girlfriend crumbled. Worst of all, his relationship with his daughter was in jeopardy.

Lujan, a native of Littleton, served in the Marines from 1993 to 1997. He re-enlisted after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

“I knew we were going to be going after the guys that did it. I wanted to be part of it,” he said.

A key to joining the service again was getting his parents to take custody of his then-10-year-old daughter, Emily. He didn’t want her falling into the hands of his ex-wife in case he was killed in Iraq, he said.

Lujan said part of 2006, all of 2007 and part of 2008 were his toughest times. He was adrift, angry and uncertain about the future. That’s when a fellow serviceman from the Paralyzed Veterans of America told him about the National Disabled Veterans Winter Sports Clinic. The event, now in its 27th year, has taken place in Snowmass Village each year since 2001.

Lujan got interested. He was active while growing up in the Denver area. He skied at Winter Park, played football, ran track and wrestled. He said he isn’t a natural athlete; he always had to work hard to excel.

Getting back on the slopes at Snowmass on that spring day in 2008 meant “getting up on the mountain and feeling the freedom.”

While riding up a chairlift at Snowmass on Tuesday, Lujan, now 42, recalled taking his first run to the base in 2008, calling his dad and saying, “I’m back” in a tearful moment.

Back, indeed. Through the use of the braces and sheer will, Lujan appears to walk normally, despite the continued lack of feeling below his knees and his inability to pick his right foot up and push his left foot down. He said people often believe he is a coach with the paralympic team rather than one of the injured athletes.

“I’m considered an incomplete para or a walking para,” Lujan said. “It makes it a bit more difficult to ski.”

Coaches, for example, encourage him to pick his toes up while training. He reminds them that he cannot, and he wouldn’t be able to feel it even if he could. He’s learned to compensate for the lack of feeling.

“I have to use my knees and hips to get that angulation,” he said.

He skied so well his first time back on the slopes that he immediately captured attention of instructors and advanced to a higher level. He was introduced to Scott Olson, a coach with the National Sports Center for the Disabled. Olson asked if he wanted to learn to be a ski racer. Lujan accepted. He skied on the weekends with the National Sports Center for the Disabled for the next three winters. Approaching 40, Lujan knew his window for top-notch competition was closing, so he quit his job before the 2011-12 season to train full-time. The Injured Marine Semper Fi Fund provided support for him to pursue his dream.

He transferred to the Aspen Valley Ski and Snowboard Club to train before the 2011-12 season, he said, because it has the best coaches in the world. He trained the last two years under the guidance of Barrett Stein and the U.S. Paralympic Developmental Program. They spend most of the time training on the Thunderbowl section of Aspen Highlands. The terrain at the four Aspen-Snowmass ski areas is “unmatchable,” he said, and the town is great to live in.

“I don’t think we get treated different from anybody else,” Lujan said. “We’re locals.”

It’s a full-time job. They travel to the Southern Hemisphere during Aspen’s warm-weather months.

“It’s just boom, boom, boom, travel, travel, travel,” he said.

The full-time training paid off last season. He collected three gold medals, a silver and bronze in various competitions.

This season he was named to the U.S. Paralympics Alpine Skiing National Team, along with two other veterans and five non-vets training in Aspen. Lujan is a member of the B Team. He finished on the podium in several races and qualified for the International Paralympic Committee’s Alpine Skiing World Championships in La Molina, Spain, in February.

He’s blunt about his experiences there.

“I got my butt kicked,” he said. “It was a real eye-opener.”

He finished in the back half of the pack in the races in which he participated, but Lujan is using that for motivation. He isn’t the type that gives up easily. He aims to race in the 2014 Paralympic Winter Games in Sochi, Russia.

“My goal is to get a gold medal,” he said.

His daughter, now 21 years old and a college student, is his biggest fan, he said. She retweets all his information about his performances.

Even if he falls short of reaching his goals at the Paralympics, Lujan will remain a poster boy for the Department of Veterans’ Affairs and the Disabled American Veterans, co-sponsors of the winter sports clinic. The goal of the organizations is to inspire the participants to get or remain active in the outdoors and incorporate fitness and recreation into their recovery. Of the 400 disabled veterans attending this year’s clinic, it is the first such event for roughly a quarter of them, according to a spokesman for Veterans Affairs.

“My mantra is recovery through sport,” Lujan said. He is mingling and skiing with other participants in this year’s winter sports clinic. He tells a handful of the disabled vets he encounters how attending the clinic motivated him and inspired him to train to the point where he qualified for the U.S. Paralympic team.

“I try to be a good ambassador,” he said.

Lujan said it’s no exaggeration to say skiing saved his life.

“I might have drank myself to death or, God forbid, gotten into something worse than alcohol,” he said.

On that account, he’ll be a winner regardless of whether he makes it to Sochi and what happens there.