The Jewel in the Crown

Reprinted from PN June 2011

For 25 years, "miracles" have taken place on a mountainside, where veterans with disabilities can find a whole new world of possibilities.

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It started from very humble beginnings nearly 30 years ago. Santo “Sandy” Trombetta, a recreation therapist at the Veterans Affairs (VA) Medical Center in Grand Junction, Colo., had been working hard helping a disabled veteran with his rehabilitation. Winter was coming on, and Trombetta wanted to keep the veteran active. He’d heard about adaptive skiing and convinced the veteran to give it a try. What happened next changed their worlds.

Over and over again the veteran, strapped into modified ski equipment, fell. After a few hours of this, Trombetta was concerned and thought maybe they should call it quits. No way—the veteran would have nothing to do with stopping. He was exhausted but determined and exhilarated, and Trombetta was inspired. He recognized the physical and mental healing skiing and other winter sports could provide to veterans with disabilities. The idea for the National Disabled Veterans Winter Sports Clinic was born.

“I found myself thinking, If this can bring out this much courage and strength in this one veteran, imagine what would happen if we brought more?” Trombetta recalls.

In 1987, ninety veterans with disabilities gathered at Powderhorn Mountain, Colo. Very quickly the program’s popularity became apparent by the steady climb in its participant base, and in 1991, Disabled American Veterans (DAV) became a cosponsor of the event. This milestone allowed the clinic to grow and become the jewel in the crown of disabled sports it is today—the world’s largest disabled winter-sports event.

“I grew up in Florida, where skiing was done behind a boat,” DAV National Commander Wallace E. “Wally” Tyson said at this year’s opening ceremony. “I had never seen snow until I was 22. I’ve seen some world-class skiing during my travels with the Army, but I had never seen anything as amazing as this clinic.”

This is high praise from someone who watched Olympic skiers training in Austria for the 1980 winter games.

Daryl Fisher was a first-time participant at this year's National Disabled Veterans Winter Sports Clinic. "I'm ready to go back," he said after his ski lesson. "I don't want to stop!"

“There is something about this clinic that has a profound impact on not only the participants but also anyone who witnesses the athletes in action,” Tyson added.

The clinic, which took place this year March 27–April 1 in Snowmass Village, Colo., has long been dubbed as “Miracles on a Mountainside.”

“It changes people forever,” Trombetta says. “It’s about overcoming challenges, healing, and living life to the fullest. It’s that moment when a disabled veteran suddenly stops focusing on what he or she can’t do and realizes a whole new world of possibilities. And it’s not just the participants who experience it, it’s everyone who comes into contact with it. People are inspired when they see the strength and spirit of these veterans—it changes you.”

Beyond Imagination

The miracle was certainly apparent when U.S. Air Force veteran Sheila James came in from her first-ever ski run with a smile that lit up the mountainside. The former senior airman’s life was literally turned upside-down when a motor vehicle rollover accident left her in a wheelchair with a spinal-cord injury in 2009.

James never imagined she would ski. Before her injury she had attempted a ski venture but turned back before ever hitting the chairlift. The idea of skiing after her injury was downright frightful. She was apprehensive and resisted leaving her wheelchair for the bucket seat attached to a ski. With the encouragement of her instructors, James went on the trip of her lifetime. She left the constraints of her chair and conquered a mountain.

“I feel like I am floating!” she exclaimed. “Right now I feel like a big balloon. This is so awesome! I can’t believe I actually did it!”

“The Clinic offers these veterans so many benefits, especially for those coming up for the first time,” Trombetta explains. “They gain peer interaction, meeting men and women from past conflicts, and realize they are part of a sacred fraternity. They witness what can be achieved from people like them with similar disabilities. They receive mentoring from others who have been there before them who give them insights on adapting and the ‘tricks of the trade,’ so to speak. They realize they are not alone, see others who are thriving despite unimaginable barriers, and leave knowing anything is possible, if they but only dare to dream. The Winter Sports Clinic not only makes people dream but also fulfills them.”

Just the Beginning

Daryl Fisher of Fayetteville, N.C., is another first-time participant who fulfilled dreams. “Before I came to the clinic, I didn’t know what to expect,” says Fisher, a former Air Force jet-engine mechanic. “I definitely did not expect this level, and I’m excited I was able to do it!”

Fisher’s fiancée was with him, not just as a support figure but as a participant. She is also a disabled veteran.

“I’m ready to go back,” Fisher said as he completed his ski lesson. “I don’t want to stop!”

Evan Graver, a former U.S. Navy aviation electronics technician, understands that feeling. He has attended the clinic for a few years and has absolutely no intention of stopping.

While in rehabilitation at the Cleveland VA Medical Center, another disabled veteran kept telling Graver how his life would be better than ever.

“I just thought, Get out of my face,” Graver recalls. Now he’s grateful for that pushing and encouragement.

“Life is truly better,” Graver explains. “Before, I didn’t do squat. Now I ski, scuba, go four-wheeling, spend quality time with my family. Things are just beginning. Someday I won’t be able to do all this. When that day comes, I don’t want to say would’ve, could’ve, should’ve.”

And, like Graver, so they go—all these amazing veterans who illustrate why this clinic is known as “Miracles on a Mountainside.” They challenge themselves mentally and physically, they grow and bond, and they prove that disability does not equal disabled—it just means they do things a bit differently.

Find more information about the 25th National Disabled Veterans Winter Sports Clinic at


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The Jewel in the Crown


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