The Winter Sports Clinic Is Changing Lives for Disabled Vets

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By Pam Martin

"We had plenty of speed and plenty of good snow to catch a good edge, and today was probably the best run I've ever had."

—Adaptive skier, Dave Riley, the 2010 Disabled Veteran of the Year.

U.S. Coast Guard veteran and quadrilateral amputee, Dave Riley, carves an edge with instructor Mike "Milty" Miltner, at this year's Winter Sports Clinic in Snowmass, Colorado. Photograph by Jeff Bowen, courtesy of the Department of Veterans Affairs.

The on-and-off snow dumps kept the mountainside supplied with fresh powder during the 25th National Disabled Veterans Winter Sports Clinic held March 27-April 1. Winter sports' usual array of goggles, sun block, ski boots, poles, and gloves, were joined by sleeves, liners, pylons, and sockets when more than 300 disabled veterans tackled the slopes for the six-day event in Snowmass, Colorado.

Even the opening ceremony was dusted by heavy snowfall when surprise visitor, Vice President Joe Biden, thanked veterans for their service and applauded their skiing prowess, according to an American Forces press release: "I already got my [rear end] kicked by one guy on a sled and one guy with a prosthesis," Biden quipped, "and I'm a pretty good skier." Biden quoted from the John Steinbeck novel East of Eden, which hails soldiers as the holiest of all humans because of the trials they've faced. "You are, in Steinbeck's words, the most tested of Americans," he told gathered veterans. "We're here to pay tribute to you...."

Nowak

Cosponsored by the Disabled American Veterans (DAV) and the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), the clinic provides instruction to disabled veterans in adaptive Nordic and downhill skiing, stand-up and sled hockey, and snowmobiling, among other winter sports activities, all aimed at encouraging participants to "try things that [they] didn't think were possible before," said Christopher Nowak, ret., a transtibial amputee who lost his right leg to friendly fire in 1987 as an infantry squad leader in the Marine Corps. Nowak was recently appointed director of the VA's new Paralympic program, which offers a monthly assistance allowance for veteran world-class and emerging athletes to train and compete, as well as grants to the United States Olympic Committee to enhance access to community adaptive sports programs for disabled veterans at every ability level.

In addition to beginners, the Winter Sports Clinic draws the elite in the disabled athlete panorama. A serious ice hockey competitor before his injury, Nowak was reintroduced to the sport as an amputee at the clinic in the late 1990s. The event changed his life, he said, because he found the courage to try hockey again—eventually leading to a spot on the U.S. National Amputee Hockey Team where he competed at the World Championships in St. Petersburg, Russia, and in a showcase event at the 2002 Paralympics. His experiences on the ice, he noted, "transformed into the confidence personally and professionally" that led to advances in his career.

He commended the close to 600 volunteers, which included more than 200 certified ski instructors for individuals with disabilities. They "can't do enough for you," Nowak said, "and they have such a vast knowledge of all the different disabilities they're dealing with." Because of their experience with "numerous BKs," they provided him with tailored help. An instructor and prosthetist teamed up to provide Nowak with a wedge for "the bottom of my boot [that helped] me get over on the ski more and [gave] me more control," he added, acknowledging the strengths in the multidisciplinary approach taken on the mountain.

Sled hockey players awaiting face-off at the Winter Sports Clinic. Photograph courtesy of the Department of Veterans Affairs

Dave Riley, a second-year Winter Sports Clinic participant and quadrilateral amputee who earned last year's Disabled Veteran of the Year award, was nursing an injury to his clavicle for his first couple of runs. His instructor lunged for his sled when he was "going down on that [side]," Riley said, adding, "[he was] definitely looking out for my safety." Mike "Milty" Miltner, inventor of the adaptive bi-ski device and one of Riley's instructors this year, wrote on the veteran's race bib, "Stop scaring me," in reference to his need for speed. Riley said the speed he's able to unleash on the sit-ski is equaled by maybe five other people in the world.

Last year Riley said he started on a mono-ski "and fell all over the place...," but this year he tried the sit-ski and found "nirvana up there." The device is "a good carving machine," Riley said, noting that he plans to take his new passion back home to a mountain in Alabama where there is an adaptive sports program.

Riley explained that he couldn't help comparing his stand-up ski experience to the fun he'd felt on skis as a young man—before his stint as a rescue swimmer in the Coast Guard, during which time he contracted the bacterial infection that robbed him of his limbs. The sit-ski is "equally fun but a really different experience" from anything he had done before. For him that sense of "nirvana" comes from the adrenaline rush of plunging into deep powder, "and just being able to lay the hook down and taking a corner of the mountain...."

Fourteen years since his operations, Riley came to the clinic last year in a "kind of funk" and said the people he met helped to pull him out of his shell. In addition to the power of the adrenaline surges he found on the slopes, he noted that his life was changed by the stories shared among peers in the more relaxed, après-ski hours.

"Everybody in here has something in common," Nowak said. "They all served. And they all have some form of disability, so they all have paid a sacrifice as part of their service." Because of that commonality, people let down their guard and open up. "When you're not skiing...talking to different people [about] what's worked for you—what type of liner, what type of sleeve do you use...do you ever get break-down—all those different intangibles that you can't put in a brochure..." were part of the draw that got him to attend that very first clinic.

Nowak's rehabilitation goals changed as a result of his post-injury athletic aims. He explains that for others like him attend­ing the clinic, they might begin the week tethered on a mono-ski, and by the end of the week be skiing independently. It's the thought process that results from setting goals and achieving them, based on those athletic feats accomplished on the mountain, that are essential to any strong rehabilitative program. "And that's something you don't get in the PT gym.... It's that whole setting goals while you're out here for the week...and achieving those goals, and they're different goals than you would set inside a brick-and-mortar building."

Both veterans are helping to spread the word about events like the Winter Sports Clinic—Nowak through the VA's Paralympic program and Riley through efforts as a volunteer with the DAV—to help other disabled athletes get the resources and "pointed in the right direction...[about] what sports can do and how [they]can change your life," Nowak said.