East Coast adaptive skier finally lives Colorado dream

Pittsburgh's Liz Dunn takes to the slopes at Snowmass on Tuesday, fulfilling a life-long dream of skiing out west. Dunn was an avid snowboarder before a 2010 car wreck left her paralyzed.
Austin Colbert/The Aspen Times |

Having grown up on the icy East Coast, experiencing Colorado’s mountains and their plentiful snowfall has always been a draw for Liz Dunn. But, before the avid snowboarder from Warren, Pennsylvania, was given the opportunity, fate intervened with a car crash that forever changed her life.

“I would go pretty much every weekend; every Friday, Saturday and Sunday I got the chance,” Dunn said of snowboarding when she was younger. “It had always been my dream to snowboard out west and I never got that chance, but this is the next best thing and it’s so much fun.”

Dunn, now 26, was involved in a 2010 accident that left her a C6 quadriplegic. She has no feeling in her legs and only limited use of her arms. While this destroyed her snowboarding dreams, Tuesday she was able to take part in a consolation prize and go adaptive skiing at Snowmass with the help of Challenge Aspen and the Baltimore-based Kennedy Krieger Institute.

“Her dream was to come to Colorado and snowboard, but since she was never able to snowboard, coming out here to ski was kind of the next best thing,” said Victoria McHugh, a physical therapist with the Kennedy Krieger Institute who accompanied Dunn to Snowmass this week. “It’s life-changing, even for us as able-bodied. It opens your eyes to everything that is out there.”

Dunn is one of four people able to take part in this particular ski trip at Snowmass this week. It started when Challenge Aspen received a grant from the Craig H. Neilsen Foundation, which focuses on charities benefiting spinal cord injury efforts. This led to Challenge Aspen reaching out to the Kennedy Krieger Institute, where Dunn, among others, was a patient.

“Skiing is one of those things that’s a real social sport, so it’s really fun for people who know each other or have common experiences to come together in a group,” said Challenge Aspen’s Deb Gravelle, the organization’s director of recreation. “We want to make sure there are no barriers to people getting out on to the slopes.”

The grant helped pay for the lodging, food and on-mountain activities for the participants, who just had to get themselves to Aspen.

Dunn first started adaptive skiing about five years ago, getting to go roughly twice a year. However, this had mostly been out east, with New York’s Holiday Valley serving as her go-to ski resort. Getting to finally fulfill her dream of hitting the slopes out west had been a long time in coming.

“I just looked up programs, because I knew it would be something I’d be interested in because I lived on the slopes before. I was like, ‘How do I get back to that?’” Dunn said. “They brought up they were taking a ski trip, so I told them I was very interested. I just really wanted to go. Because of them and Challenge Aspen, I was able to.”

Tuesday was the first of three days Dunn will have this week on the snow in Aspen. She’s also an avid kayaker and even plays wheelchair rugby for a team out of Pittsburgh, where she now calls home.

Plus, she recently earned her master’s degree and now is a registered dietician, which she hopes to use in some role in the world of adaptive sports.

So, with the help of boyfriend Brian Nicholson, Dunn has hardly sat idle since her injury. And that’s what those at Challenge Aspen and the Kennedy Krieger Institute want to see.

“For us to be able to put the extra leg work in and provide this opportunity in a safer environment kind of allows them to realize that with some extra work those opportunities do exist,” McHugh said. “Mentally for them, you get so stuck in that therapy routine and you focus on what you can’t do. When you get on a ski and you start going down fast, you are only realizing what you can do. For the time being, you don’t know what you are missing.”