BRECKENRIDGE – Four years ago, Breckenridge competitive snowboarder Matt Wyffels was involved in a horrific snowboarding accident that left him completely paralyzed from the waist down. Doctors told him that he would live the rest of his life confined to a wheelchair.
Just recently, that same wheelchair was auctioned off on eBay. Thanks to a new Physical Therapy regimen, the Sit Tall Stand Tall program, Wyffels has not only gotten rid of his wheelchair, but is walking with only the aid of leg braces, which he hopes to shed as well sometime in the near future.
Wyffels’ story was documented on film last year by Amy Sabreen, marketing manager for Breckenridge Ski Resort. Earlier this month, the documentary won Sabreen an Emmy in the New York market – and continues to win Wyffels a legion of fans.
For the last four years, Sabreen has been an associate producer for the PBS series “Keeping Kids Healthy,” a program co-produced by her parents, Susan Berger Sabreen and Richard P. Sabreen. A friend of Wyffels,’ Sabreen pitched his story to her parents, who immediately realized the importance of featuring him on the show. The result was “Triumph of the Spirit: Conquering Spinal Cord Injury,” an episode devoted entirely to the courageous story of Matt Wyffels and his ongoing recovery.
“It’s an amazing story, because he is 100 percent paralyzed from the waist down and now he’s walking and he even got on his snowboard again,” Sabreen said. “It’s such an inspiration, seeing the way he’s taken this horrible experience and transformed it – and proven everyone wrong.”
Since much of the episode was shot in Breckenridge, Sabreen set up interviews and video shoots, organized the story line, and even shot some of the video. “I wanted to make sure that both Matt’s story and Breckenridge were portrayed accurately, and in Matt’s best interests,” said Sabreen.
The highlight of the show occurred when spinal cord injury specialists working with the late Christopher Reeve came on the program to meet Wyffels and evaluate his progress.
“At first, Matt was skeptical about getting on the set with these doctors, but they validated the therapy and said that there’s evidence you have a second brain in your spinal cord even when it cuts off communication with your brain,” said Sabreen. “When you remind your body how to move, it starts catching on.
“It was great to see these high-powered researchers validate this therapy.”
After the episode was nominated, Sabreen was invited to the New York Emmy Awards Ceremony in early March. She didn’t know yet that she had won.
“They began the ceremony with a video montage, and Matt’s was the opening shot of the entire Emmy Awards,” said Sabreen. “But we still didn’t know that we had won. Then, they called us up.”
Sabreen, along with eight other production colleagues, brought the coveted award home.
“This Emmy has brought more attention to Matt’s story,” said Sabreen. “I want it to inspire others in his situation, who are overcoming obstacles in their lives. This shows how far the human spirit will go to overcome adversity.”
As marketing manager at the Breckenridge Ski Resort, Sabreen has been instrumental in working with the yearly fundraiser for Wyffels sponsored by the resort and other local businesses. This year’s fundraiser, held on April 6 and 7, includes not only the traditional rail jam but also a showing of the Emmy-award-winning video.
A former resident of Breckenridge, Wyffels was a championship snowboarder at the time of his accident four years ago, which took place during a competition. Doctors in Denver told him that he would remain completely paralyzed from the waist down, and would never be able to walk again.
“At the rehab hospital, they weren’t doing anything to rehabilitate me. They were just teaching me how to live in a wheelchair,” said Wyffels. “I wasn’t pleased with the doctor’s negative response.”
After hearing about all the things he couldn’t do instead of all the things he could do, Wyffels heard through a network of snowboarder friends about the amazing results of the Sit Tall Stand Tall program. He left Denver and drove straight to the program’s sponsors in Utah.
“This was the first program where they asked me, ‘Do you want to walk?'” he recalled. “They told me that I could do it, but that it would be the hardest thing I’ve ever done.”
That was enough to make Wyffels move to Utah and begin participating with the regimen full-time.
“It’s like an applied strength,” said Wyffels. “There are no doctors involved. It’s like going to a normal gym.”
As part of the program, Wyffels works in a number of rigorous workouts and therapeutic physical techniques.
“You start out crawling and then you walk on your knees, and finally on leg braces,” he said. “Then you get rid of your wheelchair and walk with your braces and your own strength full-time.
“The concept is that the body can learn how to do things again as long as you stimulate it and continually make it work,” he added.
Now, three-and-a-half years later, the results have been nothing short of miraculous. Wyffels no longer uses a wheelchair, but walks using his own strength with the help of leg braces. He has regained some feeling in his legs – and even got back on a snowboard last year. His next goal is to get rid of the leg braces.
“I hope the rest of the country can catch on and see that this is paying dividends in people’s lives,” he said. “It’s a Functional living lifestyle, where you can get rid of the wheelchair and walk all the time.”
The 24-year-old’s personal life hasn’t stood still, either. In addition to pursuing his bachelor’s degree in marketing, Wyffels just got married last year, and credits his relationship with God as the way he stays positive.
“In fact, that’s how I met my wife – when I was teaching a Sunday school class,” he said. “And I danced at my wedding without any canes.”
As for his heroic recovery, Wyffels is modest.
“What else was I going to do?” he asked. “I was at the peak of my athletic career when it happened, and they told me I would never walk again – so I had a goal. I wanted to make this into something positive and beneficial for others. I’ve prayed many times that if there’s any good that can come from this, to let it happen. It’s not about me.
“And the way that the community and the resort have stood by me – it touches my heart and makes the whole thing awesome.”
Fundraisers and events
This year, the fundraiser for Matt Wyffels is a three part event, beginning with a showing of the Emmy-award-winning “Triumph of the Spirit: Conquering Spinal Cord Injury” on Thursday, April 6, from 7-9 in the council chambers at the Breckenridge Town Hall. Matt Wyffels will have a question and answer session after the show, and refreshments will be provided. Admission is free, but donations will be accepted.
On Friday, April 7, the Massive Rail Jam will be held in the terrain park at Peak 8 at the Breckenridge Ski Resort. In addition to prize money for each rail, there will be prizes and live music. Helmets are required, and entry is limited to 125 participants. $35 advance registration, $40 day of registration. All proceeds will go directly to Matt Wyffels to help pay for his Physical Therapy. For more information please call (970) 453-5000 or visit www.springmassive.com
On Saturday, April 8, there will be a Massive Party benefiting Matt Wyffels at Cecilia’s in Breckenridge, featuring free beer and live music. Admission will be free with a Rail Jam credential, or $5 for the general public. You must be 21 or over to attend. For more information call (970) 453-3234