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Embracing challenges

| Source: denverpost.com

Snowmass Village – Mario Uribe didn’t believe.

With his right leg and left arm missing since his exposure to radiation while in the armed services in Oregon in the early 1970s, the Oakland, Calif., veteran didn’t think he would ever ski. Heck, 30 years ago he wasn’t sure he would ever walk.

But at Snowmass ski area last week, he skied. He loved it. Couldn’t get enough.

“I didn’t have much hope they would get me on the snow,” Uribe said of his first time on snow. “But I didn’t fall once. I flew down that hill. Man, I never would have even thought of skiing when I had two good legs. Let me tell you, when I get home, I’m telling everyone I know about this.”

“This” is the National Disabled American Veterans Winter Sports Clinic, a weeklong festival for injured soldiers that has been a Colorado mainstay for 19 years. In 1987, fewer than a hundred disabled veterans went skiing for a few days at Powderhorn ski area. This year, more than 350 vets rallied for downhill and cross country skiing, rock climbing, snowmobiling, dining and partying – all the trappings of a traditional winter vacation.

Except this group is hardly traditional. Some are in their 70s, while others look as though they still should be wedged in tiny desks studying algebra. There are women and men. Some are missing limbs. Others are paralyzed. They need crutches and wheelchairs and helpers.

But when they get on the mountain, their smiles mirror those of little kids. Joy spills from them.

“Everybody go home, the master is here. It’s on, baby!” says Julius Franklin, gushing as he steps into a customized ski gizmo that keeps his broken body upright and on the snow.

Four years ago, the Virginia vet won “Skier of the Year” honors at his first clinic. He was gunning for a similar performance this year.

“Let’s do this,” he says, pushing off with his helpers watching closely.

The theme of the winter clinic is hope. And for the growing number of new faces on damaged bodies at the clinic, hope can be fleeting.

“Last year, when I got here for the first time, I was wondering how I could even live with two prosthetics,” said Alan Lewis, a 24-year-old Milwaukee vet who lost both legs to a land mine in Baghdad in July 2003. “When I saw some of these guys out here ripping up the mountain, it shed a whole new light – a light I hadn’t seen – on things for me.”

At the 2004 clinic, there were about 30 vets from Iraq and Afghanistan. This year, the number of recently disabled veterans participating has doubled.

“Next year, I’d like to see more motorcycle accidents than injuries from IEDs (improvised explosive devices),” Lewis says.

For the older vets, the clinic is a venue to help their younger counterparts see hope and renewed confidence is around each turn, if you keep trying.

For the men and women who have grappled with their injuries for decades, the clinic is also a chance to convey some of life’s hardest lessons.

“My first time, 10 years ago, I learned I could do a few things, and that opened a window for me, where I said, ‘I can do a lot of things,’ ” said Landon Henderson, a wheelchair-bound, 41-year-old former Marine from Fresno, Calif. “The younger guys have a lot more opportunity to speed their recovery through this clinic.”

“The opportunities some of the kids have coming in, just seeing all this stuff is amazing,” said Gary Combs, a 37-year-old former Navy Seal from Fresno, Calif., battling Multiple Sclerosis.

“It opens positive thinking. It builds confidence. It allows you to embrace challenges instead of avoiding them because of your injury,” said Rod Ramsey, a ski instructor from Ohio who lost his leg to a helicopter blade while working on an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico in 1986. “A day skiing can show these folks how to make it work anyway you can. It’s a steppingstone to the next great adventure, which for some of these guys might be simply be taking a step.”

Ramsey is one of hundreds of volunteers who take part in the clinics, serving food, hauling bags, fixing wheelchairs and teaching skiing – all the myriad tasks involved in reducing the barriers winter sports toss at folks who can’t walk.

Bill Aronson, who helps with spinal-cord research at the Veterans Administration Medical Center in Miami, came to Snowmass to help teach skiing at the clinic. He’s leaving with more than he expected.

“We are supposed to be teaching them,” he said with a laugh. “They are the ones teaching us. They show us how to appreciate everything in our lives. They show us the meaning of motivation. I’ve learned more from everyone here than anyone did from me.”

Disabled vets become learners, teachers at sport clinic
By Jason Blevins – Denver Post Staff Writer

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