Former pro skier charges on after devastating back injury
In an instant, a once-soaring ski career came crashing down. He tries not to think about what happened in Steamboat Springs on Feb. 10, 1973, but the memories still linger in Peter Hershorn’s head. Hershorn, then 24 and the world’s fourth-ranked freestyle aerialist, remembers that conditions were adverse and the course unusually slow. He remembers being concerned about the landing area – the runout of a moguls course, not the typical steep pitch he and other competitors were accustomed to.”A contest like that would never have happened today,” the part-time Aspen resident said Thursday.Still, Hershorn jumped on that day. He threw his double backflip laid out with a spread-eagle. Something went wrong. He landed awkwardly and broke his back. Hershorn has been paralyzed from the waist down ever since.In the 34 years since, Hershorn has never skied, odd considering he lives in the North of Nell building at the base of the Aspen Mountain gondola. Photographs capturing his high-flying exploits adorn the walls of his residence, including one of his daring 103-foot jump on Ajax, which appeared in the December 1973 issue of National Geographic.He’s proud of the pictures, Hershorn said, but he’s coy when discussing the past. Instead, he’s quick to point out other photos – kayaking the Grand Canyon, off-roading in his Honda Pilot and sailing the pristine waters off Oahu in Hawaii.
All those pictures, he glowingly proclaims, were taken after his fateful fall.”I did not like people telling me what I’d be capable of,” said Hershorn, who moved to Aspen from Montreal in 1969 and who now splits time between here and Honolulu. “I figured out new ways of doing things and didn’t let anything stop me from doing what I wanted to do.”In the 34 years since Steamboat, Hershorn’s life has been anything but confining – don’t let the wheelchair fool you. He’s traded in his multicolored ski suits for the vibrant, billowing sails of Illusion, his 32-foot catamaran. Hershorn now commands the water like he did the air. He, along with a crew of three, skippered Illusion to a win in the Waikiki Yacht Club’s D.J. Johnson Three Day Around Oahu Regatta over Memorial Day weekend. Hershorn, who set the speed record on the same route in 2001, topped a fleet that included other multihull vessels and a host of quicker monohulls. He’s lost track, but, in the 13 years he’s competed in the event, Hershorn estimates he’s finished first six times. He’s experienced comparable success in the Maui-to-Honolulu race – one in which he also holds the speed record – that he’ll compete in this September.”It didn’t happen overnight,” Hershorn said of his most recent successes. “It’s happened over many years and many learning experiences.”
In the months following his injury, Hershorn, intent on proving doubters wrong – one occupational therapist told him he’d move at “the speed of a turtle” for the remainder of his life – lived on the fast track. He became the first paraplegic to kayak the Grand Canyon and logged countless miles in a camper van on a trip through Europe, he said. When he returned to Aspen, someone suggested Hershorn pursue sailing and diving. Two weeks later, he bought a Hobie Cat 16 and was cruising Ruedi Reservoir.Soon, he was taking part in Aspen Yacht Club regattas. He competed in the Hobie 16 national championships in San Diego during the summer of 1974. The sport’s appeal was obvious.”I didn’t really need my legs to sail a catamaran as well as anyone else could,” Hershorn says. “I could compete on the same level as able-bodied athletes again.”One pin, measuring no more than a few inches long, attached to the Illusion’s hull to anchor Hershorn’s harness, is the only discernible difference between his boat and those of his competitors.
In safely and quickly circumnavigating Oahu, a distance of almost 100 miles, decision-making, solid teamwork and keen instincts, not legs, distinguished Hershorn from the rest of the fleet’s contenders. That became clear on Day 1 as he, Matt Merrill, Roy Seamen and a man named Fitz (who was added to the team the day before the race after Danny McFerrin dropped out because of a family illness), overcame early difficulties to vault into the lead.The Illusion was closed out at the start and quickly dropped to the back. They played catch-up for the first mile as they traveled out of Waikiki toward Diamond Head. The misfortune proved to be a blessing; after stabilizing themselves, Illusion ended up having a better angle toward the Diamond Head buoy as the winds shifted. Minutes later, they took the lead for good.Sail problems slowed their progress – a batten holding the sail in place pokedout and the main had to be taken down – but the Illusion was the first to reach Kaneohe Bay. They finished the 27.23-nautical-mile first leg in 2 hours 49 minutes, more than an hour ahead of second place. It would become a familiar sight.Illusion was second off the line on Day 2 as competitors made their way to Kaena Point. Once they got out of a channel, however, Hershorn said the crew threw up the spinnaker and pushed to the front. As winds gusted to 15 knots, Illusion battled a quicker monohull skiff, a boat designed to perform well in light wind conditions, for a time before pulling away.
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“The skies were clear and it wasn’t very windy, so the fact that we beat that other boat was amazing,” Hershorn said. “They had trouble holding their spinnaker, and we blew them away.”The crew had to work hard to earn a victory on Day 3’s return to Waikiki. They went through half a dozen sail changes as winds fluctuated from zero to 10 knots, Hershorn said. They wound up beating the top monohull by 10 seconds.For Hershorn, a man who turned adversity into opportunity, it was a seminal moment.”We didn’t think we stood a chance,” Hershorn said. “We surprised ourselves.”To sail 15-foot seas in [winds of] 30 knots, and do it with no handicap, there’s no comparison.”Jon Maletz’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
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