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Ski Resort Life

Veterans On Top of the World

Injured soldiers will ski with Bode Miller at the 24th Annual Winter Sports Clinic in Snowmass, Colorado.

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Veterans will have their chance to ski with Bode Miller next week when the 2010 Olympic champion joins 375 injured soldiers at the 24th Annual Winter Sports Clinic in Snowmass Village.

“I’m looking forward to getting on the hill with these veterans who’ve made such sacrifices for all of us,” said Miller. “I bet they’ll inspire me more than the other way around.”

Sponsored by the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) and Disabled American Veterans (DAV), the annual Winter Sports Clinic will bring veterans and adaptive ski instructors together in Snowmass, Colorado, for five days of skiing and socializing. From March 28 through April 2, 2010, injured men and women ranging from age 19-90 will have a chance to join in a variety of adaptive sports, workshops, and seminars. About one third of clinic participants are recent veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan.

A Clinic Is Born

The Winter Sports Clinic unofficially began in 1981 when recreational therapist Sandy Trombetta took a single veteran, suffering from a serious neurological disorder, out to ski at Colorado’s Powderhorn Mountain.

“I saw the profound effect it had on him,” Trombetta said. “It was about someone who had had a loss physically, rediscovering himself. I knew if we put a program in place it would help all veterans.”

Six years later, 87 veterans attended the first annual Winter Sports Clinic at Powderhorn, founded and organized by Trombetta, who worked at the Grand Junction VA hospital in Colorado. It has since become a popular annual event. Some veterans apply individually for the chance to ski and stay in Snowmass for the free clinic, but most are referred by their physical therapists at VA hospitals across the country.

For many, it’s their first time on skis.

“Skiing is probably the easiest and most perfect adaptive sport,” said Trombetta. “It’s an adaptive sport for all of us,” he said because we all need special equipment—skis—to get down the mountain. “A ski is an incredible piece of equipment, just like a wheelchair or a prosthetic leg.” And skis can be adapted to accommodate just about any physical challenge, so anyone can experience the thrill of skiing.

Some common adaptive ski setups are the mono-ski and the bi-ski, in which athletes sit in a special seat that’s mounted over one or two skis, and three- and four-track setups, for athletes who have use of one leg or two prosthetics.

Trombetta estimates that his team of more than 200 qualified adaptive instructors can get most novices skiing in about 15 minutes. The instructors are volunteers who come from all over the world to provide their expertise to injured veterans.

However, the weeklong event isn’t all about alpine skiing. Other adaptive sports and activities are on offer, including cross-country skiing, snowmobiling, rock climbing, sled hockey and scuba diving. Lectures, dinners and concerts round out the week’s events. “The whole idea is to get our injured service men and women involved with activities that will help them when they return home,” said Trombetta. “People with disabilities often become shut-ins because they don’t have the proper skills for or access to different recreational pursuits.”

Olympic Skiers Step Up

One of the highlights of the clinic is the Night of the Champions, a meet-and-greet with Olympic skiers Bode Miller and Casey Puckett and snowboarders Andy Finch and Chris Klug.

Featuring plenty of food and entertainment by Colorado-based soul singer, Hazel Miller, the evening is a celebration. “We feel like all our men and women are champions,” said Trombetta.

In fact, a handful of the past clinic participants have gone on to compete in skiing events at the Paralympics, including this year’s games in Vancouver.

Creating Paralympians

The Paralympics, which began in England after World War II, originally served as rehabilitation for injured soldiers. This year, five U.S. veterans competed at the Winter Paralympics in Vancouver. Four of them have ties to the Annual Winter Sports Clinic, and three of them received their first ski lesson at the WSC. Andy Soule, who participated in the clinic in 2006, lost both legs in a roadside bomb in Afghanistan in 2005. Last week, he became the first American to medal in the sitting biathlon when he won bronze in the event. National Guard veteran Chris Devlin-Young discovered skiing at the Winter Sports Clinic 24 years ago, after a plane crash left him paralyzed. A super G champion and four-time medalist at the games in Lillehammer, Salt Lake City and Torino, Devlin-Young participated in his fourth Winter Paralympics in Vancouver.

Although the week ends with a Race Day on Friday, April 2, when participants compete for medals, Trombetta asserts that the clinic is not about creating Paralympians. “It’s about people working on their rehab, so they can do as much as possible in their everyday lives.” Trombetta credits the mountains and their natural beauty for inspiring many veterans. “It’s a perceived freedom they get as soon as they get off the airplane and see the mountains for the first time. That creates an energetic spirit in them to want more and learn more. They’re hungry and we try to feed that hunger.”

Excercising the Body and Mind

Clinic organizers provide many different events for veterans to nurture both body and spirit. One such event this year is a writing workshop taught by Anthony Swofford, a former marine and New York Times bestselling author of Jarhead, a memoir of his experience in the first Gulf War. Swofford’s book was later adapted for a 2005 film directed by Sam Mendes, starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Jaime Foxx. Swofford first attended the event in 2006 and began teaching a workshop last year.

In one exercise, Swofford asks participants to write about the best and worst day of their lives. Some write about the day they were injured. “One guy who was in Iraq talked about the day he was injured being the best day of his life because he lived while others died,” said Swofford. “That stands out for me most. These guys are dealing with some amazingly difficult physical and some psychological obstacles.”

Trombetta believes that skiing introduces injured veterans to a new way of seeing themselves and what they can accomplish. “When you’re on top of a mountain, and your life is pretty slow most days when you’re in a wheelchair or working a prosthetic, and all of a sudden the wind is in your face and you’re going fast and you’re making great turns, it’s not hard to understand why,” he said. “Skiing changes lives.”