Roaring Fork Valley residents reflect on their experiences as Paralympic athletes

Athletics helped Huston, Finch adjust to life after injuries

As the Tokyo Paralympic Games came to a close last week, two Roaring Fork Valley residents reflected back on their experiences as athletes in earlier and in some way groundbreaking versions of the international competition.

Judy Huston, 79, of Glenwood Springs completed in the 1964 Summer Paralympics in Japan in field events and wheelchair fencing. She still possesses the five medals — four silvers and one bronze — that she earned in the second official Paralympics.

Jim Finch, 67, of Basalt, competed in the 1980 Summer Paralympic Games in the Netherlands and came back with medals of every color — gold and bronze in wheelchair races and silver in swimming. He returned to the Winter Paralympics in Nagano, Japan, in 1998 and competed in four disciplines of ski racing.

Since they both competed in Japan, the high visibility and extensive coverage of the Games this year brought back a flood of memories.

“I said, ‘All right, Tokyo again,'” Huston said. She has watched some of the games and marveled at the skills of the competitors.

“I think they’re actually athletes, for sure,” Huston said. “There’s no doubt about that.”

Finch added, “The overall level of competition keeps going up all the time.”

Finding a new path

Huston, then Judy Waterman, was a junior at Colorado University in 1963 when she crashed her Austin Healy and experienced a spinal cord injury that paralyzed her from the waist down.

The Waterman family has deep roots in the Roaring Fork Valley. Judy’s grandfather was the engineer of the Midland Railroad train that made the last trip from Leadville to Basalt in 1918. Judy was raised in Aspen where her parents operated a gas station, grocery store and cabins at the site in west Aspen where the Agate Lodge later operated. Judy graduated from Aspen High School in 1959 in a class of 26 kids. Her parents sold their Aspen property and bought a ranch outside of Basalt, a portion of which eventually became part of the Roaring Fork Club’s golf course.

Huston said there was no one to blame but herself for her crash. She was driving too fast and lost control of her car in Boulder. At that time, CU and Boulder weren’t equipped to accommodate a person in a wheelchair, she said. Streets didn’t have curb cuts and buildings didn’t have ramps.

“Very luckily for me, my parents heard about the University of Illinois,” she said. The university had dorms specially tailored for people with disabilities, and they were not only encouraged to take physical education courses, they were required to take them.

While attending high school in Aspen, Judy dabbled in fencing after classes in a club organized by the Bob Lewis, the legendary Aspen educator and environmentalist. She renewed her interest in the sport during college. She qualified for the 1964 Summer Paralympic Games in multiple disciplines — fencing and throwing shot put, discus, javelin and what was known then as the club, a heavily weighted object shaped like a bowling pin.

The Paralympics officially began in 1960. The Stoke Mandeville Games preceded them in 1948 and evolved into the Paralympics. So Waterman participated in one of the early events. She was just 22 years old at the time.

Back in that era, the team valued athletes who could compete in multiple sports, Huston said. There wasn’t the degree of specialization that exists today. Judy earned silver medals in shot put, club throw and discus. She earned individual silver in the fencing discipline known as foil and a bronze in team fencing in foil.

“Fencing was the one I was most proud of,” she said.

While Huston has a kindly, grandmotherly demeanor, she still possesses a spark of competiveness. She said she had the ability to beat the Italian woman who topped her for the fencing gold.

She recalled that the entire Paralympic team of about 68 athletes only had about three coaches, so they couldn’t be everywhere. She approached her matches with a calm demeanor.

“Nobody was there to put any pressure on me,” she said.

Then, the coaches heard she was “doing pretty well” and one came to oversee her in the gold-medal match. The supervision and self-applied pressure steered her away from what had worked in the past matches.

“I know one thing, I could have beat her,” Huston said of her final match.

She recalled the experience with fondness. She stayed in the Olympic Village and participated in the opening and closing ceremonies. She was able to spend a few nights with a Japanese family as part of a cultural exchange experience.

“I loved the travel. I loved the culture,” Huston said. And there also was personal growth competing in an international setting only a year after a life-altering injury.

“You’re building confidence in your abilities,” Huston said.

After she graduated from the University of Illinois, Judy returned to the Roaring Fork Valley and was hired as a second grade teacher at Glenwood Springs Elementary in 1968. She taught second grade for 31 years.

‘Value of being able to recreate’

Finch was a strapping Minnesota lad who excelled at multiple sports during his childhood and young adulthood. He was working as a tree trimmer in 1976 when he hit a power line. The accident led to amputation of both legs.

Finch was an avid swimmer and skier before his accident. He recalled taking the train from Denver to Aspen for family ski trips when he was young. Hockey was his true passion.

It was natural that he turned to sports after dealing with the heartbreak of losing his legs.

“I was looking for something to pull me out of this thing,” Finch said.

A local nonprofit organization in Minneapolis urged amputees to get involved in wheelchair basketball games. He also met a Vietnam War veteran who was a double amputee who competed in wheelchair races and provided inspiration for Finch. He got involved in racing and unofficially participated in the Boston marathon a couple of times thanks to organizers who bent the entry rules a bit.

Finch qualified for track and swimming events in the 1980 Summer Paralympics when he was 26 years old. It was still an era when it was common for team members to compete in multiple disciplines. At the time he was attending the University of Indiana, which had a highly regarded swimming coach. He told the coach he had qualified for the Games and was invited to train at the pool.

“It was just the value of being able to recreate. When you’re injured, you think that’s all over.” — Jim Finch, 1980 Paralympian

He competed in the breaststroke, backstroke and freestyle, winning a silver medal in the 100-meter breaststroke.

He competed in three track disciplines, the 400-meter race, 800-meter race and a 400-meter relay. He earned bronze in the individual 400-meter race and was part of a sweep of the podium by the U.S. team. He also was part of the gold-medal winning relay team.

“The technology in wheelchairs was just evolving,” he recalled. Many competitors in the U.S. Nationals showed up in custom units. Workers in the maintenance department at his university agreed to weld a chair that he designed.

Fresh off the success of the 1980 Games, he was eager for more. He wanted to get back into skiing, but what was available for people without use of their legs was closer to dragging their knuckles while riding a toboggan. Mono-ski technology improved immensely in the mid-1980s.

In the early 1990s, Finch visited Winter Park to participate in disabled skier clinics. His love of skiing brought him to Snowmass Village in 1995 where he met the organizers of what would become Challenge Aspen, a nonprofit organization that gets people with disabilities engaged in outdoor activities.

“Knowing they were doing that, I decided to move out there,” Finch said.

It was a move that paid off. He qualified for the 1998 Winter Paralympic Games in Nagano. He competed in slalom, giant slalom, super G and downhill. He said he finished mid-pack among 30 to 35 competitors in his class.

While he didn’t win a medal, the experience of the Games was priceless.

“It was just the value of being able to recreate,” Finch said. “When you’re injured, you think that’s all over.”