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Spectacular Changes

Reprinted from SNS January 2017

One of the largest adaptive winter sports clinics, The Hartford Spectacular, has helped those with disabilities change their mindsets and realize they can do more.

The Hartford Ski Spectacular changed the way Matt Melancon thought. 

Just six months after his first leg amputation because of an infection, the Army veteran was hurting inside. He was depressed. He was angry. Melancon didn’t believe he was going to be his active self again.

Even when doctors told him about how amputees could snowboard, he questioned it. Melancon didn’t understand how he could be successful, especially if able-bodied people struggled with the sport. 

Then, he attended The Hartford Ski Spectacular in Breckenridge, Colo. Over nearly a week, he learned how skiing and snowboarding could still happen, even if it was rough.

“The whole trip was kind of a controlled disaster. But it just introduced me to this incredible new world. And it really just gave me a fight to have, and I think that’s really important for people like me,” says Melancon, who had his left leg amputated after being hit by a roadside bomb strike in early September 2011 at Paktika Province in Afghanistan. “It sucked, but it was like a great kind of suck. I think the only I way I could describe it is that fight, just laying in a hospital bed, I didn’t feel like I was just holding on. There wasn’t really a fight for me to have. And learning how to snowboard, it was just kind of this wonderful fight that I could actually fight.”

Helping The Injured Fight

There are handfuls of winter disabled sports clinics across the United States, ranging from Colorado to Minnesota to Pennsylvania. The Hartford Ski Spectacular is one of the largest. 

Hosted and run by Disabled Sports USA, The Hartford Ski Spectacular started in 1988 and has held different names. The six-day program at the Beaver Run Resort in Breckenridge runs from late November to early December and teaches participants how to ski, snowboard and more. Lessons are offered in the mornings and afternoons with plenty of time to practice.

More than 800 people attended last year’s event, which includes a Ski Spec Challenge Race, Nordic skiing, biathlon, curling and sled hockey clinics, a casino night and other banquets, as well as an opening banquet for veterans with disabilities. 

There’s also a classroom session for those teaching adaptive winter sports to help instructors from all over the country learn the latest techniques.

Executive Director of Disabled Sports USA Kirk Bauer says the goal is to provide a national event that brings people with disabilities together to learn everything about snow sports, both from student and instructor points of view. Bauer acknowledges there’s a lack of trained instructors for those who have disabilities, particularly those with spinal-cord injuries. He wanted to change that and get more out there. 

Now, he’s in charge of an academy offered by Professional Ski Instructors of America and the only one in the United States where instructors receive credit. 

An Army veteran, the 68-year-old Bauer was hit with a hand grenade during battle in Vietnam in 1969. He lost his left leg above the knee, but it’s adaptive skiing and Disabled Sports USA that changed his life. 

Bauer sees participants at the beginning of the Spectacular and then at the end. He loves watching their mental and physical changes from the first day to the last. 

“It builds their confidence. It puts them on the path to fitness, and it gets them focusing on something positive like sports instead of, you know, sitting around and thinking about all the things they don’t think they can do anymore,” Bauer says. “And that’s what I was doing. When I was in the hospital at Letterman [in San Francisco], I didn’t even realize I was doing it, but I was sitting there with a checklist — gee, I can’t do that anymore, and I can’t do that anymore. I was big into sports before that, so this was a real tough situation as far as I was concerned. And I thought I was no longer going to be able to do a lot of the sports that I did and a lot of the activities. And of course none of it was true, but I didn’t know that. By getting out and going out on the ski slopes, skiing was my first sport I did out of the hospital, just completely turned my whole outlook on life around.”

Enviroment Changed Life

Each year since 2013, Melancon has returned, but with a different outlook. The first time he attended he’d just started out as a single-leg amputee, the second time he was a bilateral amputee, the third time to participate in a Paralympic snowboarding race camp and now as a hopeful Paralympic snowboarder. 

That environment, filled with perseverance, adaptability and positivity, pushed Melancon.

Melancon still remembers his opening first-day challenge and putting his prosthesis into a boot. His salvaged severely injured right foot was a size 15 boot, while his amputated foot was a size 10 boot, a tough predicament. But he managed to make it work — and then take a chance and snowboard. That also turned out differently. 

“I was expecting I’d go on the bunny hills and that a lot of people were going to be kind of participating but not really achieving. That was just immediately shattered the first day — seeing these people just flying down all the way down the mountain, riding the lifts all the way up. It was incredible,” Melancon says. “It definitely raised the bar for what I was expecting and what I was willing to put into it. Seeing something that I could be doing really pushed me to get to where I could.”

After the Spectacular, Melancon’s mind changed. He decided to have his right leg amputated, too. He thought it was holding him back, and the event gave him the strength to make the decision. Melancon had made friends with other skiers and snowboarders, most of whom are civilians, and watched them achieve success. That only brought him more hope. 

“They were all just these lions that refused to let life conquer them,” Melancon says. “And just coming from my physical therapy, where everybody was still at their early stages of recovery and so young and so fresh from injury, just meeting these people who had been injured, some of them for over a decade, and seeing how they conquered life to such an extent where they were able to pursue sports like skiing and snowboarding, it just kind of gave where I was at in my recovery, context.”

In 2015, Melancon returned to compete in a Paralympic race snowboarding camp and in 2016, he was back after attending a 10-day Paralympic hopeful snowboarding camp in Austria. 

 “It’s really cool how much I grow every time and how I’m able to bring back more to the community every time,” Melancon says. “Both my feet were so broken, but it connected them. Like the snowboard connected my body, whereas in skiing each side of the body is working independently. And so I really feel like snowboarding is a much more adaptable sport for people overcoming disabilities.”

Motivating Youth, Too

It’s not just for adults, either. Courage Kenny Rehabilitation Center’s Lisa Gacek recommended two of her teenage athletes — Brynn Duncan and Ty Wiberg — attend The Hartford Ski Spectacular. And it had a major impact on them.

Duncan admits she was a little intimidated the first time she went. She’d never participated in this large of a winter sports clinic, and this was the farthest the 16-year-old had been away from her family before. Then she met some Paralympic skiers like Sarah Holm. They changed the Moorhead, Minn., resident’s entire outlook, and she’s attended three more Spectaculars since. 

“I was a little uneasy at first, but then I was really excited because I got to ski with amazing skiers that were in the Paralympics and they were on the mountain,” says Duncan, an L1 paraplegic after she sustained a broken back in a 2008 car accident in Fergus Falls, Minn. “The people there are so friendly and not intimidating, and the coaches there are amazing and they’ll help you a lot. They helped me with my confidence in skiing and just my technique and skill.”

Wiberg, who was born with spina bifida, has skied for the past eight years. Coaches suggested the camp would be a great opportunity for him to improve his monoski racing skills, so he gave it a try three years ago. The 15-year-old high school freshman has learned plenty of beneficial tips, including how to turn shapes, pick the best line around the gates and figure out the best turn time on the course. 

“When I come to this camp, I go and I’m fully independent on my skis,” says Wiberg, who resides in Chippewa Falls, Wis. “It’s something that I’m able to do. I can go by myself, or I can go with my friends and know that I can do this on my own. I don’t need someone to help me ski.”

Breckenridge’s atmosphere also enticed him. Since Wiberg lives in Wisconsin, he usually has to travel an hour and a half into Minnesota to ski. But it’s nowhere close to the size of Breckenridge’s resort. 

“It’s just a great program if you’re going into racing. It’s a great camp to come to,” Wiberg says. “You have all of the coaches, international/Paralympic coaches, Paralympic athletes here coaching you. You just have great coaches and great athletes helping the coaches. It’s just an amazing environment to be in and to learn.”


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