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Finding Their Footing

Reprinted from PN June 2012

The 26th National Disabled Veterans Winter Sports Clinic shows that adaptive sports are powerful medicine.

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Jason Stebbins shook his head in disbelief. Why won’t this lady leave me alone, he thought. But here she was again, talking about going skiing in the Colorado Rocky Mountains.

“I’m not going skiing, it’s dangerous,” he would tell Joyce Casey, his recreation therapist at the Clement J. Zablocki VA Medical Center in Milwaukee.

Stebbins had reason to be nervous. He served 25 years in the United States Army before being medically retired after sustaining a spinal-cord injury (SCI) in November 2010. The thought of hurling his body down a mountain was difficult to grasp.

“The last thing I want to do is hurt myself even more,” he explains.

But he also realized he couldn’t hole up in his house for the rest of his life. With a wife and three children—ages 2, 4 and 7—Stebbins wasn’t about to miss out on all the joys of being an active husband and father.

So he signed up to attend the 26th National Disabled Veterans Winter Sports Clinic, held March 25–30, in Snowmass, Colo. 

Trust

The experience would provide a number of “firsts” since his injury—his first time in an airplane, his first time skiing, and his first time in a swimming pool.  But perhaps more importantly, he learned a lesson that will last a lifetime.


U.S. Army veteran Michael Thomas competes in sled hockey, just one of many activities at the National Disabled Veterans Winter Sports Clinic.

“What I’m finding most helpful as I rehab is that you’ve just got to trust the people who are here to help you,” Stebbins says. 

He quickly developed a sense of trust during his first ski lesson with adaptive instructors Brian Guido and Phil Popp, both from the Breckenridge Outdoor Education Center.

The First Step

“I was scared to death,” admits Stebbins. His instructors could sense he was nervous and were careful to explain every step. 

The first step was to evaluate Stebbins’s upper-body strength, trunk control, and balance. Instructors do this to custom fit an adaptive skier with the right gear. For Stebbins, they opted for a bi-ski with hand-held outriggers.

The next step was to transfer and get Stebbins comfortably positioned in the ski. Once seated, they attached a tether for safety and speed control, and took off down the hill.

Stebbins describes the “coolest part” of his first run down the hill. 

“You come to this point on the mountain where you can’t actually see the drop below. You just see the peaks in the distance, and you just drop off the edge and jump into it,” he says. 

By the second day, Stebbins was getting more comfortable in his newfound abilities.

“I kept a looser grip on the tether and let him make his own turns,” says Guido. “We focused on leading his chin into the turns and driving through the move. He was definitely getting it.”

Plenty of Inspiration

One look around the ski loading area gives plenty of inspiration to new skiers like Stebbins. Nearby is Michael Thomas, an Army veteran from Milwaukee who is attending the clinic for the 14th time.

Thomas sustained a spinal-cord injury and is paralyzed below the waist. Like Stebbins, when Thomas first started skiing, he used a bi-ski tethered to an instructor. These days Thomas uses a mono-ski without a tether. 

His instructor, Lisa Schwarz, a volunteer from Maine Adaptive Sports & Recreation, is quick to point out that Thomas has good ski skills but even better tactics, or decision making. 

“In spring skiing you’ve got patches of ice in the shady areas, and it can be slushy in the sunlight, so you need to be smart in how to maneuver through these conditions,” she explains. 

Thomas enjoys the skiing, but he likes mentoring newly injured veterans even more. 

“The first thing I tell them is, ‘Welcome to the life.’ It’s a different life, but it’s one worth living,” he says. 

What You Can Do

In addition to downhill skiing, veterans attending the Winter Sports Clinic also have the opportunity to try adaptive Nordic skiing, biathlon, rock climbing, scuba diving, trapshooting, curling, sled hockey, and snowmobiling.

Jeffry Richcreek, a U.S. Navy veteran from Aurora, Colo., attended the clinic for the first time. But he is no stranger to adaptive sports. 

Richcreek has stayed active since his spinal-cord injury years ago. He hand-cycles and works out to stay in shape. At the clinic, he tried Nordic, or cross-county skiing, for the first time. 

“This event gives disabled vets the opportunity to know what they can do and opens many doors into a person’s self-worth,” Richcreek says. 

Powerful Medicine

Opening doors is exactly what Winter Sports Clinic organizers hope to achieve.

Adaptive sports can be powerful medicine, according to Clinic Director Teresa Parks, a certified recreation therapist at the Grand Junction, Colo., VA Medical Center.

“We use sports to help veterans rediscover their potential and improve their quality of life,” she explains.  “Even small accomplishments, like learning a new sport, can help veterans heal physically and emotionally.” 

Celebrating its 26th year, the National Disabled Veterans Winter Sports Clinic was cosponsored by VA and the Disabled American Veterans and made possible by a number of sponsors who make monetary and in-kind donations. 

For additional information, visit wintersportsclin
ic.va.gov.

Contributor: Matt Bristol, VA Public Affairs Specialist.

 

To Bi- or Mono-ski?

“We’re not here to take them for a ride. We want them to ski and be in control,” he says.

 

***end***

 

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Finding Their Footing

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