Veterans with disabilities discover new zest for life on the slopes
U.S. Army veteran Sean Eddy says he only has two speeds — real fast and stop.
He couldn’t wait to speed down the slopes at Powderhorn Mountain Resort at a recent ski clinic for disabled veterans, sponsored by the Grand Junction Veterans Health Care System and Colorado Discover Ability.
Eddy is a recent amputee who had never skied before.
“I think it will be like driving a Formula One car down a ski slope and I think I’m going to have a blast,” he said with excitement.
After suffering for years because of a service-related injury, Eddy had his left leg amputated just below the knee last April.
“It was a pretty hard decision, but I’m at peace with it,” he said.
Just 10 months later, he was lowering himself without fear into the bucket seat of a monoski, one of several pieces of adaptive equipment used to help those with disabilities hit the slopes.
Ryan Keyes, a recreational therapist at the Grand Junction Veterans Affairs Medical Center, helped Eddy find his balance using hand-held outriggers.
“Adaptive equipment helps people do what a normal standing skier would do and it helps them find independence on the mountain,” he said while explaining the various types of gear available to veterans in the program.
This year, eight veterans are learning to ski at Powderhorn. Workshops are conducted six times each season, Keyes said.
“We help progress their ability level and integrate them into Colorado Discover Ability and other nonprofits in Colorado so that skiing can be something they can do on a regular basis,” he said.
Colorado Discover Ability is a local organization with a mission to increase independence and self-confidence for those with a wide variety of disabilities, through outdoor recreation.
The nonprofit organization incorporated in 1980 as the Powderhorn Handicapped Ski Program and only provided adaptive skiing opportunities at the resort, according to its website, coloradodiscoverability.org.
The program expanded in 2001 to include a wide variety of year-round recreational programs including kayaking, rock climbing and summer camping.
It has more than 180 volunteers who provide teaching, equipment and transportation.
Jim Polehinke, a U.S. Navy veteran and adaptive ski instructor for Colorado Discover Ability, said being given the opportunity to learn to ski after he became disabled was “just phenomenal.”
“When something catastrophic happens, you have to adapt to your new circumstances,” he said.
Polehinke, whose legs were amputated after a plane crash in 2006, said he now skis better than he did before he was injured.
He is thankful for the recreational program offered at the VA Medical Center.
“The recreational activities at the VA have been exceptional. It makes me want to go on another day to experience whatever adventure I can,” he said.
Giving veterans a zest for life is really the most important aspect to recreational therapy programs, especially when considering the high rate of suicide among veterans, VA spokesman Paul Sweeney said.
“Our veterans get rehabilitation, but what they don’t get is their lives back,” he said. “This establishes their emotional reconnection with the world.”
Lori Lohar, acting director for the Grand Junction Veterans Health Care System, said it was truly inspiring to watch veterans improve their skills on the mountain.
“We really appreciate Colorado Discover Ability and Powderhorn for partnering with the VA and helping get our veterans on the hill,” Lohar said.