The Hartford Ski Spectacular 2014

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By Laura Fonda Hochnadel
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A participant receives one-on-one instruction. Photograph by Laura Fonda Hochnadel.

Retired Army Staff Sergeant Orlando Gill said he attended The Hartford Ski Spectacular for the first time in December 2005. He was already a seasoned snowboarder, but that occasion was his first time on a board since undergoing a left transfemoral amputation 14 months before while serving a second tour of duty in Iraq.

Gill participated through an affiliation between the event's host, Disabled Sports USA (DSUSA) and Walter Reed Army Medical Center, Washington. He returned the following year as a volunteer, and now as a DSUSA employee.

"My first run on the bunny hill after losing my leg [is the most memorable]," he said. "I remember the excitement, the fear, the joy, the pain of being able to do what I love...doing what I want to do, and the sky is not the limit."

Now in its 27th year, The Hartford Ski Spectacular continues to make the slopes accessible to individuals with disabilities and impairments of all types-as diverse as amputations, spinal cord injuries, vision and hearing loss, traumatic brain injuries, Down syndrome, and more-and to skiers and boarders of all levels-from first timers to U.S. Paralympic Alpine Skiing National Team members. This year was no exception.

Alva carves the slopes. Photograph courtesy of DSUSA, by KenWatson.net.

More than 800 participants from 42 states and four countries descended upon the Beaver Run Resort and Breckenridge Ski Resort, Breckenridge, Colorado, December 1-7, 2014. The packed schedule offered lessons in downhill and Nordic skiing, snowboarding, biathlon, sled hockey, curling, and après-ski activities. Ski and snowboard race training, sponsored by U.S. Paralympics, helped athletes prepare for future national and international competitions. The Professional Ski Instructors of America (PSIA) and American Association of Snowboard Instructors (AASI) offered continuing education and credentialing opportunities to adaptive ski and snowboard instructors.

Also in attendance were about 100 wounded warriors, a substantial increase from the seven who attended in 2003. Among those seven was Eric Alva, a retired Marine staff sergeant who has the distinction of being the first Marine seriously injured in the Iraq War: On March 21, 2003, Alva, who had already been in the military for 13 years, stepped on a land mine and lost his right leg above the knee-just hours after arriving in Iraq. This was his second time attending The Ski Spectacular; he now serves as a mentor to other wounded warriors.

"[W]hat I like most about the program is how every single individual participating is willing to help the person right next to them," he said. "What I like most about skiing is going fast...down the mountain and feeling the fresh air brush right past you in that way that only a skier can tell."