Denver man finds new meaning in adaptive sports after a freak accident
In the most excruciating moment of his life, Gary Verrazano remembered what a military nurse had once told him: Keep talking and don’t fall asleep.
The accident came in June 2012. Verrazano was working at the time as an operations manager at NASCAR events, where he was tasked with leading the setup of equipment around the racetracks. The track on that dark day was Infineon Raceway in Sonoma, California.
Verrazano’s life changed forever when the airlift he was working on had a malfunction with its hydraulic component. Seconds later, Verrazano, who now lives in Denver, found the right side of his body crushed beneath the weight of the massive machine.
Under the machine, he didn’t lose consciousness. Awake through the entire 48-minute ordeal, enough adrenaline coursed through Verrazano’s body to not feel any pain.
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Verrazano, a Marine Corps veteran, was living with post-traumatic stress disorder and a traumatic brain injury from his time in the military. While pinned beneath the machine, and while thinking back to what helped his injured military mates survive in combat, Verrazano got to chatting.
“I just kept talking to the paramedics,” Verrazano said. “We talked about NASCAR, talked about football.”
Verrazano doesn’t remember exactly what he spoke of in that moment, when he was convinced he’d be OK as long as he remained mentally engaged in the conversation. He said it was likely about his favorite NFL team, the New York Giants, winning the Super Bowl four months prior. Or maybe about his favorite NASCAR driver, Jeff Gordon, and how Gordon’s parents were always so kind to Verrazano every time he’d see them up on the suite level at a NASCAR event.
It was thoughts like these that helped Verrazano weather the ordeal. It wasn’t until he was in the hospital seven weeks later when Verrazano realized he had lost his right arm and leg in the accident. The knowledge came after Verrazano was effectively incubated for those seven weeks, surviving five different cardiac arrests during that span.
The life-altering injury sent Verrazano into a deep depression. Through the ensuing months, Verrazano stuck to himself in the hospital’s back room, not engaging with anyone. When handed his new prosthetic leg, he refused to walk.
“I just didn’t want to do anything,” he said.
Setting his anger toward God aside, it was about six years ago when Verrazano relented to join a friend of his at a church service. Verrazano said his reconnection with religion inspired him to seek out the things in life he previously enjoyed, such as skydiving. Not long after, Verrazano strapped his prosthetic leg to his body for his first post-injury skydive. After that, Verrazano was connected with the Lakewood-based disabled sports organization Adaptive Adventures. With Adaptive Adventures, Verrazano took part in team boat racing, and eventually skiing.
Last week at Keystone Resort was Verrazano’s third consecutive winter skiing at the Keystone Adaptive Center’s Military All-Mountain Event. Verrazano was one of a dozen disabled individuals who each had their own specific skiing setups concocted by employees and volunteers with the Breckenridge Outdoor Education Center.
One of those individuals was another veteran who also was injured in an accident after his time in service. Tom Allind of Parker was out there on a ski bike last week after he suffered a spinal cord injury six years ago while horseback riding. Allind was connected to Adaptive Adventures by his daughter Leya, who interned for the organization.
“I saw all the different activities that Adaptive Adventures has and realized he can participate, too,” Leya said.
Thanks to his daughter’s foresight, Tom, who now spends the majority of his time in a wheelchair, plays for the Colorado Avalanche’s sled hockey team and is able to ski again.
This week at Keystone, he skied beside Verrazano, even if their setups were different. Rather than a ski bike, Verrazano glided down the hill by way of a tri-ski. As with most adaptive athletes, though, Verrazano’s tri-ski was tailored just for him. When he skis, Verrazano doesn’t wear his right prosthetic leg. Rather, Adaptive Adventures and BOEC personnel pad his upper right leg with enough cushion to both make the ski experience comfortable for him and balance his center of gravity.
Once balanced, Verrazano uses an outrigger in his left hand to prevent falling on his left side. On his limbless right side, Verrazano can choose to adhere or remove a separate outrigger that can serve as a sort of training wheel if he’s afraid of falling.
Summit County seasonal resident and Breckenridge Resort ski instructor Ed Carroll was at Keystone this week helping Verrazano, Allind and others to ski. Carroll and Verrazano enjoyed chatting on Wednesday about kindred interests and their similar stories. The conversation touched on Carroll’s own service history in the Coast Guard, which left him with a damaged spine that resulted in periodic paralysis of his own. Though he can now walk, Carroll said his body has deteriorated the equivalent of 15 years in just five years.
The two also spoke about Carroll’s childhood on the beaches of Connecticut. Back in the ’50s and ’60s, during the Giants’ training camp, Carroll would play with the children of the NFL team’s players. Verrazano appreciated the story and the connection.
The conversation then turned to skiing and other adaptive sports. In that moment, Verrazano shared with Carroll his next goal as an adaptive athlete. He said he is now in touch with a group of students at the Colorado School of Mines in Golden. Their goal is to conceive a dynamic mouthpiece that will enable Verrazano to shoot an arrow from an archery bow by simply using his bite.
At this point, why not try for it? After all, Verrazano follows the very same mantra he shares with others.
“Think positive,” he says, “because if I can do it, you can do it.”
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