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Mountain of Youth

Reprinted from PN June 2010

The National Disabled Veterans Winter Sports Clinic offers a heap of rejuvenation as participants trade their spokes for skis.

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Of the 354 veterans who attended the 2010 National Disabled Veterans Winter Sports Clinic, more than half were over age 50, and 174 of those were returning participants. Many factors bring so many disabled veterans from across the country to Colorado each year, but one of the chief reasons cited by the senior crowd that dominates the event was rejuvenation.

Sponsored by the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) and Disabled American Veterans (DAV), the event happens each spring in Snowmass Village, Colo., where hundreds of vets trade their spokes for skis and learn any of many activities to stay healthy, happy, and hearty all year long.” I feel 25 again, to be honest,” said Vienna Smith, a 51-year-old U.S. Air Force veteran who was enjoying her first Winter Sports Clinic. “This week has been like a new start in my life. I’m rejuvenated, and I can’t stop smiling, even when I’m crashing and doing nothing right.”

Smith was wounded April 3, 2009, when she was shot in the spine during a robbery in Orlando, Fla. While Smith was undergoing rehabilitative care at the Kansas City VA Medical Center, her therapist and ski instructor, Allison Smith, told her about the clinic. Though Vienna had never tried a winter sport, she agreed to attend.” And I’ll be coming back every chance I get,” Vienna said. “I’m hyped now, very hyped. It’s exhilarating, like a breath of fresh air after a year of hard rehab.

This clinic and the people I’m meeting here make me want to move.” Michael Brickert is 62, but in those six decades, he packed in 27 years of military service in the U.S. Navy, Army Reserves, and Air National Guard; combat deployments in Vietnam, Desert Storm, and Operation Enduring Freedom; 34 years of law enforcement; and 7years of life with paraplegia.”

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I had skied only once when I was able bodied, but I have been back to the Winter Sports Clinic seven years straight,” Brickert said.” They had to talk hard and practically drag me here the first year, but now I’m a big advocate for this event.” Brickert credits the Winter Sports Clinic for helping him rediscover his identity and take control of a life that was spiraling.” When you first get injured, you can lose your identity,” Brickert said. “You have no idea what you can do, and all you see is limitations. This clinic teaches us independence, and we learn we can still do just about everything we want to. We may have to do it differently now, but there’s confidence it can be done.”

Brickert touted the independence he has learned at the event, not only from achievements in the various activities but also from the vital advice he receives from the other veterans, who are eager to share the tricks and tips they have learned to make life in a chair an easier ride.” It’s amazing the amount of initiative you can find in just one week here,” Brickert said. “The other veterans have taught me more than I ever would have discovered on my own—for every issue I face.

Whatever I’m trying to figure out, they’ve done it, so I don’t have to spend my time stumbling and failing. This clinic has affected far more than just one week of my life each year.” Brickert stopped Alpine skiing, the clinic’s primary event, four years ago. Instead, he rekindled a past love, cross-country skiing, and has also become a regular presence at left wing in sled hockey.” It’s a team sport, which appeals to me more,” Brickert explained. “Sure, I may be the oldest guy out there on the ice, but I’m giving as well as I’m taking from the kids out there.”

Falling…for Colorado and the Clinic

Terry Mittelstaedt has also used a wheelchair for the past seven years, due to hyperactive paraplegic spasms, a progressive disease connected to his service in Vietnam. However, he didn’t hear about the Winter Sports Clinic until last year. Coming from the flat terrain of Milwaukee, Wis., Mittelstaedt was overcome from the first minute he deplaned and saw the majestic peaks of the Rocky Mountains.”

I can’t believe I went six years without trying this,” Mittelstaedt said. “The scenery alone when we got here was more than I expected. I’m sitting slack-jawed every direction I look. It’s unbelievably beautiful out here.”

Of course, Mittelstaedt did far more than just look around the clinic. He spent plenty of time snowmobiling and skiing when he wasn’t busy falling.” I didn’t make it down the mountain once without falling,” Mittelstaedt laughed. “But, you can’t slap the smile off my face this week. Every experience I’ve had here has passed the realm of what I thought was possible. I’m 60 years old, and I’ve never had such fun in all my life.”


Sled hockey appealed to some clinic attendees who prefer team rather than individual sports.

Buddy Hayes has been attending the Winter Sports Clinic for five years and proudly tells her fellow vets she is 52, probably because she doesn’t look anywhere near it.” Age is just a state of mind. If you don’t mind it, it doesn’t matter!” Hayes said. “This clinic is more than just a chance to feel young again. It’s a shot in the booty that gets me through until the next year and gives me something to look forward to while I’m doing it.” Hayes participates in plenty of other athletic rehabilitation events including the National Veterans Wheelchair Games (NVWG) and various regional events.

She and her fellow veteran friend, Jersey Jeanne Goldy-Sanitate, spend much of their year dragging each other across the country to compete. Still, Hayes endorses the Winter Sports Clinic as one of her favorite events. “Most of the events I enter throughout the year are very competitive, but that is not why I do them,” Hayes said. “The Winter Sports Clinics among the best of them because everybody up here becomes family, and we pull for each other. When I finish a ski run, the people here ask if I had fun, not what my time was.”

The opportunity to try new things and discover new abilities in such a supportive environment is what keeps Hayes coming back and swearing she will never miss a clinic. “No matter what age or ability, you are going to feel like a winner here,” Hayes said. “The people take great care of us and make us feel comfortable trying new things. I was introduced to scuba at the Winter Sports Clinic three years ago. Now, I am open-water certified. This clinic opens doors to abilities you never knew you had.”

A Gift for All Ages

Michael Murphy is an Air Force veteran whose paraplegia resulted from a 12-hour surgery that deprived his spinal cord of oxygen for two hours. The Winter Sports Clinic is Murphy’s gift to himself. He turned 50 on March 31.“They make me feel like I matter here, so it is a great birthday,” Murphy said. “The instructors are sincere in their concern for me and vested in helping me improve. This is my second year at the clinic, and my instructor remembered me and where I was with my progression. That’s something pretty special.”

In only two years, Murphy has tried every activity at the clinic except scuba and cross-country. However, his favorite event remains Alpine skiing, and he proudly reported he spent his birthday slinging himself down the slopes.” I was exactly where I wanted to be when I turned 50, and I was doing something I love,” Murphy said. “God willing, I’ll be coming back to this clinic for the next 50 birthdays, too.” Fred Colson, a 62-year-old Coast Guard veteran, attended the Winter Sports Clinic for the first time this year, and he echoed Murphy’s enthusiasm for returning as long as he can.”

I certainly acted a lot younger than my age,” Olson laughed, rubbing his arms after finishing a race on Friday. “A 62-year-old man should know when it’s time to hold back and preserve a little of his body for the future.” While Colson loved every exhausting moment of the activities, he said the greatest surprise was how quickly long-time participants brought him into the fold.” This place is fantastic, and my family just extended three-hundred fold,” Colson said. “I expected to enjoy skiing and trying my hand at sled hockey, but the people here made this event exceed my expectations. I’m sorry for any veteran who misses this clinic. There are too many great times and good people here to do that.”

The chance to mix and mingle with fellow vets outweighs any anticipation over activities for Hayes as well.” It’s a family reunion you actually want to go to,” Hayes laughed. “No subject is taboo, so we can discuss the issues we’d be too embarrassed to talk about anywhere else. I talked at length with other female veterans about resolving bladder problems the other day, and I learned a lot. That’s simply not something I can get at home.”

After experiencing the camaraderie and contest for their first time, Mittelstaedt and Smith became devout clinic disciples as well.” You would have to be nuts to not want to be here,” Mittelstaedt said. “The volunteers, instructors, other veterans—there is no other place on earth where so many people are completely dedicated to making you realize just how much life still has to offer and how much you still have to give, too.”

“Oh, I’ll be recruiting when I get home,” Vienna Smith said. “It was a miracle just to feel athletic again. I’m coming back every year, and I am bringing friends.”

No Fear

“Don’t let fear of limitations keep you from trying this event, because you will enjoy every part of it to the utmost,” Murphy advised. “I never worry about what I can’t do at this clinic, because the people here will show me how I can.”

The clinic is hosted by the Grand Junction Colorado VA Medical Center and VA Rocky Mountain Network. Veterans wishing to experience the Winter Sports Clinic or any of VA’s national rehabilitation events should request information from the rehabilitative services section of their local VA medical center. More information is also available online at www.wintersportsclinic.va.gov and at www.va.gov under Media Room and Special Events.

Something for Everyone

Clinic attendees enjoyed a wide variety of sports and activities:

  • Ski lessons
  • A challenge race
  • Adaptive sports workshops and educational classes
  • Scuba diving
  • Sled hockey
  • A climbing wall
  • Snowmobiling More than 200 certified ski instructors for people with disabilities as well as several current and former members of the U.S. Disabled Ski Team met participants’ unique needs.

 

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