Aspen clinic motivates disabled military veterans
ASPEN — With unblinking eyes, Steven “Blake” Bryant watches as the curling stone creeps down the ice.
Two volunteers furiously sweep in front of the stone aiding its smooth glide.
Then a cheer goes up and Bryant smiles. A huge smile.
Fist bumps and high-fives ensue.
It was a grand shot, a mere inches from the center.
Pushing a 40-pound stone down the ice isn’t too tough even from a wheelchair.
Bryant’s easy smile and low-key personality are evident as he enjoys a day on the ice at the annual National Disabled Veterans Sports Clinic.
“It’s been a lot of fun,” he said about his second trip to the sports clinic.
His tone changes little when he talks about why he’s now in a wheelchair — a 2014 motorcycle crash.
“It’s one of the toughest things I’ve ever had to go through,” he said.
The 28-year-old from Anniston, Alabama, admitted that he made a quick decision to bury the self-pity and depression that can sometimes consume victims that become paralyzed.
“I have a 5 year old, who at the time was about 3, and I knew I had to get myself out of the hospital bed, I couldn’t let him see me that way,” Bryant said. “I just tried to get my butt up and start doing something for myself.”
With his son, Kerrigan, serving as his inspiration and motivation, Bryant loves staying active.
“This week, I skied and I went out and did ice hockey, and I loved that,” he said with his Alabama drawl. “Never played before. I guess it was kind of an adrenaline rush, it’s a little rougher sport, and I like that. I really enjoyed that, I want to come back for more.”
Cheers, shouts, smiles and laughter were abundant at the Aspen Ice Garden this past Thursday as these veterans enjoyed this unique Scottish-created sport that resembles an odd kind of shuffleboard on ice, and fascinates millions during the Winter Olympics every four years.
The sports clinic has been coming to Snowmass Village and the surrounding area for the past 31 years, and veterans flock to the event from all over the country.
They all have stories about their disabilities; some tragic and heartbreaking, some from strokes or illness; some from injuries that occurred in combat and others in accidents in-country.
All of them enjoy being active and come to have fun, swap stories, make new friends and catch up with old friends, and enjoy a week in the Colorado mountains.
Curling is one of many activites offered to the veterans. From downhill to cross-country skiing and snowshoeing, to snowmobiling to hockey, an array of winter activities were available. There was also fly-fishing, bowling, rock wall climbing, and more.
“Well let’s see,” Nolan Wallace said, thinking about what he did at the sports clinic. “I did cross-country skiing, I did snowshoeing, I climbed a wall.”
He chuckled about the wall he climbed.
He was intrigued but a little apprehensive about curling. Partly because of a stroke he suffered two years ago.
“I’m interested in curling but not excited. Me and ice, me and the cold don’t get along too well,” he said.
But the 66-year-old New Orleans native, who now lives in Spokane, Washington, was in good hands along with every one of the more than 400 veterans who came to the clinic. Every year, hundreds of volunteers help out at the event.
Wallace had a little slip on the ice, but a volunteer on each side grabbed hold of him to keep him safe and upright.
The range of disabilities runs the gamut with the veterans.
A number of visually impaired veterans took part in curling. Some nearly completely impaired while others with less severe vision disabilities.
Army veteran Jim Riley, 76, is a big curling fan from Stowe, Ohio. And he’s quite good at the sport.
He held his hands a few inches away on each side of his face and said, “I can’t see my hands.”
Then a mischievous grin appeared.
“But my vision is like a scope when I’m looking straight ahead. In curling, it works really well.”
Bryant, who proudly said about his name, “you know like Paul “Bear” Bryant,” the legendary late Alabama football coach, was having fun learning curling and competing with his newfound buddy Travis Johanson, 29, of Penn Valley, California.
Bryant, wearing a U.S. Army cap, and Johanson a U.S. Navy cap, it was Army vs. Navy in a friendly game of curling.
“It’s been fun,” Johanson said about his first trip to the sports clinic. “I got to go mono-skiing for the first time in my life. Then I learned how to fly fish, and now I’m learning curling.”
It took a little while for Johanson to get the hang of it. But then he started hitting the circle and a broad smile appeared.
“That was my best shot of the day,” he said.
Johanson, who was paralyzed in a car accident, plans to be back next year for more fun.
Fun, camaraderie and memories are what the sports clinic is about.
Every year, those three things are absorbed by all the veterans in one of the most special gatherings in Colorado.
“I will be back. This is so much fun. So much fun,” Bryant said.
The smile departed for a moment as he concentrated on his next shot.
But that smile quickly returned as his stone again drifted into the circle. He then started looking for a celebratory fist bump or two.
And he got them.